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Feeding the City 

Work and Food Culture of the Mumbai Dabbawalas 



Sara Roncaglia 



© Sara Roncaglia. 

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Sara Roncaglia, Feeding the City: Work and Food Culture of the Mumbai 

Dabbawalas (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2013). 

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Acknowledgements ix 

Preface xi 

Introduction xv 

1. Bombay -Mumbai and the Dabbazvalas: Origin and 

Development of a Parallel Economy 1 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition 37 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust: 

The Shaping of Dabbawala Relations 87 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 119 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of 

Diversities 155 

Glossary 181 

Select Bibliography 193 

Index 209 

One blue-bright Bombay morning, in the middle of the masses on the 
street, I have a vision: that all these individuals, each with his or her 
own favourite song and hairstyle, each tormented by an exclusive 
demon, form but the discrete cells of one gigantic organism, one vast 
but singular intelligence, one sensibility, one consciousness. Each 
person is the end product of an exquisitely refined specialization and 
has a particular task to perform, no less and no more important than 
that of any other of the six billion components of the organism. It is a 
terrifying image; it makes me feel crushed, it eliminates my sense of 
myself, but it is ultimately comforting because it is such a lovely vision 
of belonging. All these ill-assorted people walking towards the giant 
clock on Churchgate: they are me; they are my body and my flesh. 
The crowd is the self, fourteen million avatars of it, fourteen million 
celebrations. I will not merge into them; I have elaborated myself into 
them. And if I understand them well, they will all merge back into 
me, and the crowd will become the self, one, many-splendoured. 

Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (London: 
Headline Review, 2005), p. 590. 


This book is the product of a dual research effort: its subject matter 
was the topic of my PhD in Political, Social and Psychological Sciences 
at Genoa University under the supervision of Marco Aime, Professor 
in Cultural Anthropology; it was also one of the issues addressed by a 
collective research project I was involved in, called Diversities: A Project 
On People and Institutions, sponsored by ENI's Enrico Mattei Foundation 
(FEEM), and carried out under the scientific supervision of Giulio Sapelli, 
Professor of Economic History. 

I would like to thank ENI's Enrico Mattei Foundation and Professor 
Giulio Sapelli for supporting my research in India; Professor Marco 
Aime for letting me work freely on my own research project; the 
Human Sciences Research Methodology PhD teaching collegium at the 
University of Genoa's Faculty of Education Sciences; Professor Pinuccia 
Caracchi and, particularly, Professor Alessandra Consolaro, for sharing 
their profound knowledge of India with me; Professor Giorgio Solinas 
for the thought-provoking discussion during our PhD evaluation session; 
and lastly, Professor Giuliano Boccali. My thanks also to Carlo Petrini 
and Federica Tomatis for letting me know that Raghunath Medge and 
Gangaram Talekar, President and Secretary of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin 
Box Suppliers Charity Trust, would be attending the 2006 "Terra Madre" 
event in Turin, thus providing me with the opportunity to meet them. My 
special thanks to all the dabbawalas who were patient enough to talk freely 
with me during our interviews. 

I would never have been able to carry out this research without the help 
of many different people: I would like to thank Francesca Caccamo for 
translating my words into Hindi during interviews with non- English-speaking 
local informants; Usman Sheikh for interview transcriptions; Rebecca 
and Kenneth David for hosting me during my first stay in Mumbai; 
Shailindra Kaul and Abjijeet Sandhu for their whimsical yet important 

x Feeding the City 

friendship; Sandy; Kalpana; Chiara Longo and her husband Sebastien 
Bastard for their hospitality during my second stay in Mumbai; Clara; 
Meena Menon; and the Annapurna Association. I would also like to thank 
Professor Roberta Garruccio, who — after reading and supervising my 
final dissertation at Milan University several years ago — also offered to 
comment on my doctoral dissertation. I am particularly grateful to the late 
Armando Marchi, head of Barilla-Lab, whom I remember fondly for the 
stimulating food industry research he allowed me to conduct at Barilla. 
My heartfelt thanks go to Daniele Cologna for all the advice that has been 
forthcoming over the years, accompanying my intellectual evolution. 

I would like to thank Alessandra Tosi and Open Book Publishers for 
including my book into their catalogue, and my editors Corin Thorsby and 
Berenice Guyot-Rechard for their comments and intellectual advice. My 
heartfelt thanks to Ishan Mukherjee, wishing him all the best for his studies. 
Finally, I would like to thank my translator Angela Arnone, with whom a 
close relationship developed as we debated the most appropriate route for 
rendering my research and ideas for the English-speaking reader. 

This work is dedicated to Kenneth David, killed tragically in a fatal 
plane crash while I was in Mumbai. 

And to my loved ones. 


This book is about the anthropology of the city or, more accurately, 
anthropology in the city, based on the extensive map of one of the 
many systems of circulation: food. Food that is carried, delivered and 
returned from the kitchen to the consumer. The Mumbai dabbawalas are 
food deliverymen that connect homes and workplaces — messenger boys, 
urban servants who are fast and precise, trustworthy and discreet, clean 
and punctual. Service, certainly, but service immersed in the teeming 
ocean of urban modernity. Each day they move along the rail network; 
their work thus entails a journey and this journey is repeated on a 
daily basis, with long itineraries cadenced by the sequence of customer 
addresses where they must deliver without fail the tightly sealed tin that 
each wife has prepared and handed to them early in the morning, to be 
taken to a husband working in an office, on a construction site, in a shop, 
many kilometres away. 

A mild sense of duty, of a delicate, humble and scrupulous mission, 
interwoven with a generous readiness to work for the good of the 
customer: these are the recurring motifs of work that seem to make the 
dabbawalas happy. They bring together the beneficiary and the benefactor 
(and is this not pure Jajmani philosophy?) in a shared satisfaction, yet 
seem to expand unexpectedly in the heart of frenzied modernisation. 
Food is a message, transmitted through nutrition: more than in other 
contexts, its energetic communication is released socially and physically 
in space. Born out of tender, loving care, it bridges the distance between 
one individual and another, passing the expanses desecrated by traffic, 
the mingling of people and vehicles, environmental impurities of exhaust 
gases, and inclement weather. 

The custom of ordering takeaway food, to be delivered from the 
restaurant to the consumer's house, is far more widespread in the western 

xii Feeding the City 

world, although it is also to be found in Indian metropolises. This is a 
formula that every now and again replaces home-cooked food prepared 
in the family kitchen, like "going out to eat" without actually going 
out, a small exception to domestic routine. The dabbawala service is just 
the opposite or the reverse: it conjures up the feeling of home for those 
away from home. Each day it reinforces ties between the family and the 
workplace so that the domestic intimacy enclosed in the tiffin can emerge 
during a lunch break in the office, on a building site, in a factory. In this 
respect, it is quite similar to the custom once frequent in rural society 
whereby all kinds of farmworkers were ensured a midday meal. 

Sara Roncaglia's description of the Mumbaite system reveals that, in 
contrast with more sophisticated market cultures, the order of affections 
and food containers maintains its tenacious hierarchy of precedence, 
which is as much about ethics as it is about taste and aesthetics. This 
is an order that establishes the indissolubility of the nutritional bond 
between family and work, men and women, etiquette and bodily ritual, 
and community membership. I believe that this is where the source of 
an investigative critique can be perceived, suggesting opportunities 
for research that will sound the innermost depths of the emergence 
or development of strongly cultural new urban trades. Such trades 
can take root deep in the cultural sensitivity of a society swarming 
with ethnic and religious contacts, innervated with open technologies 
and abysmal poverty, imbued with deep malaise and rocked by the 
tremors of social distinction. The Mumbai dabbawalas are not just a trade 
corporation but also a structured community, with dense social identity 
and cohesive recognition ties. The network of responsibilities, functions 
and organisational complementarity that forms the setting for the work 
of something like five thousand meal delivery men does not serve only 
to ensure the best technical standard for the service system. It could be 
likened to a modern guild, where work and social identity, devotion and 
economic gain, even the sharing of beliefs and religious works, as well as 
mutual aid, are part of this business culture. 

Similarly, and from the same root, they produce and administer a 
symbolic substance without which the very existence of services would 
be compromised, or at least altered, in that implication of oriental charitas 
(and quite different from Christian charity) in which the welfare of the 
customer and the service provider are identified. This concept leads 
to a reflection on the comparison between the economic principles 

Preface xiii 

that distinguish different cultures: Italian, of British origins (slowly 
assimilated in Latin regions), and Hindu, or more broadly southern Asian. 
In the first case, it is the meeting of interests (or egotisms) to drive the 
motor of exchange and ultimately to fuel market solidarity on the basis 
of a useful cross-calculation: a concordance of convenience. In the second 
case, which extols trade and links the good to the useful, opportunities to 
achieve personal benefit is seen (or is represented) as an offering for the 
benefit of others: the offering of oneself or simply an offer to accord with 
the customer's contentment. In the most intense versions of devotion, 
indicated in traces of tradition, of dharma, this projective orientation 
achieves forms with greater signs of voluntary dependency. There is 
no need to stress that in this economic ethic the rhetoric of selflessness 
(of an uplifting mission) assumes the role of an ideology of social status 
and easily becomes an image— something that approaches advertising, 
the self-satisfied glorification of the corporate self, generous, benevolent, 
humble, and even joyfully submissive. 

A fine, tenuous but persistent web enfolds the ramifications of a city that 
stretches endlessly, enfolds it with an artful ballet of deliveries, cadenced 
in minutely signed identification symbols (the dabbawala alphabet, writes 
the author: a system of distinctive symbols for groups and individual 
carriers, also designating places for sorting, delivery and destination). 
This sort of encrypted language, similar to an elementary information 
system that combines space and people, actually accompanies the daily 
weaving of the impalpable web of clientele and servers. Filaments of 
paths, competition, commodification: no less than other utilitarian-type 
exchanges, here the portions of comfort (perhaps consolation or affection) 
that the tiffin contains in its sealed interior, incorporate the insuppressible 
quality of the contents. 

In the final part of her book, Roncaglia gives an overall (and wide- 
ranging) key for interpretation: gifts and merchandise move hand in 
hand in this system. Perhaps they even fuse, complement each other. 
In the wake of Godbout, the scenario transcends the cold mechanics 
of efficiency, profitability and monetisation: the ultimate utility of the 
cycle of patrons, services and remunerations does not drain away in the 
production or reproduction of material advantages, but in the creation 
of community ties. Compared to this encompassing aim, dabbawala work 
appears as a "business activity incorporated in a moral perspective". In 
general, this opinion can be accepted, provided that the commitment 

xiv Feeding the City 

does not preclude further steps, which may be even more unpredictable 
and riskier, and may lead to the products of this moral economy flowing 
effectively into other, uncontrollable market circuits. 

Pier Giorgio Solinas 
Siena, 3 March 2012 


This book is an ethnographic analysis of a local workers cooperative 
in Mumbai: the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 
(NMTBSCT). This enterprise employs up to 5,000 dabbawalas, who have 
been delivering 200,000 \unch-dabbas daily to students, office workers and 
factory workers since the end of the nineteenth century. 1 A dabba, also 
known as a "tiffin", is a specially designed circular steel box made up of 
three separate sections that fit together to form a cylinder of about 20 cm 
in height. These food containers are commonly used by Mumbaikars 
(the inhabitants of Mumbai) to carry their lunch, which is prepared 
in their home and then delivered to them in their place of work by a 
dabbawala. The system allows everyone to eat home-cooked food without 
hygiene and cross-caste contamination risks. 

The first chapter looks at the cultural, historical, and economic 
relationships between the city of Bombay-Mumbai and the NMTBSCT. 2 
The city provides the dynamic backdrop for the establishment of a system 
of food distribution that offers a sustainable method of feeding the city in 

1 I decided not to use diacritic marks when spelling Hindi and Marathi terms (nouns, 
names of people and places); nor do I use any Anglicisms in the transcription - such 
as double vowels (e, o) to express long vowels (i, u). The only exception is the term 

"dabbawala" , formed by the noun "dabba" and the suffix "wala", which turns the word 
into a compound noun (like, for instance, "milk" and "milkman"). Please see the 
glossary for original spellings. The names of Mumbai districts are the official versions 
applied by the city's authorities. 

2 Throughout the text I have attempted to follow a historiographical approach, referring 
to the city as Bombay when referring to its history up to 1995, when the name 
was changed to Mumbai, and as Mumbai when discussing its situation during the 
subsequent years. The name-change came about as part of a concerted government 
strategy to set modern India apart from its colonial past. Yet given how the city's 
inhabitants themselves tend to associate different meanings and allures to the old 
and the new name, in some cases I have found it more meaningful to keep the two 
names as one single construct (Bombay-Mumbai), reflecting two different, and yet 
complementary ways of understanding the city's complex soul. 

xvi Feeding the City 

harmony with traditional values. The dabbawalas do not consider this to 
be merely a job, a viable means for mostly poor and illiterate workers to 
survive: they see it as their profession. 

The second chapter describes how religion, caste, and ideology have 
converged to generate meaning, ascribing specific values to Indian food. 
Here I apply a gastrosemantics-oriented approach, exploring how culture 
makes use of food to signify, comprehend, classify, philosophise, and 
communicate. This chapter offers a description of the complex relationships 
that link this process of cultural semantification of food to daily religious 
practices, the daily routine of Indian women and, lastly, surviving caste- 
related hierarchies in a vast Indian metropolis like Mumbai. 

The third chapter describes the organisational structure of the 
NMTBSCT— its operational guidelines, its generational turnover, 
distribution logistics, the delivery process, and the technical solutions that 
make it extraordinarily efficient despite considerable odds. This includes 
simple techniques— like the symbols drawn on the dabba to identify the 
recipient's location— or more complex expedients, like the use of the 
railway network as a sort of mind-map that allows the dabbawalas to 
establish a symbolic and material affinity with this megacity of nineteen 
million inhabitants. 

The closing chapter penetrates the tight-knit relationship that links the 
entire system of dabba preparation and distribution to the cultural processes 
of Bombay-Mumbai's nutritional transformation. The chapter traces this 
relationship back to the reasons that have made this Indian metropolis a 
truly global city; it looks at the eating habits and value systems ascribed 
to food by the many different migrant groups that make up the city's 
population. The ongoing acculturation process that accompanies the 
continuous inflow of migrants of very diverse origins has forged the city's 
characteristic nutritional physiognomy, recognisable in the diversity of 
cuisines and eating habits. Yet as the shift from old Bombay to new Mumbai 
progressed over time, there have also been changes in the tensions between 
different minorities and local communities, exacerbated by the city's 
growing ethnicisation. Certain groups have claimed collective rights on 
the grounds of identity and affiliation to particular castes, regional origins 
or language. Mumbai has become the stage for bloody racial and religious 
clashes, and the groups involved usually consider food the prime marker 
of differentiation and separation. Food has come to express distinctions 
and rivalries that to some extent already existed within the Indian cultural 

Introduction xvii 

tradition, but have now been allowed to degenerate into overt political 
hostility and outright violence. In this harsh new climate, the "other" is 
subject to a kind of cultural cannibalism, as each social group aspires to an 
exclusive monopoly of power and culture. 

These conflicts and changes are examined using the "foodscape" 
concept— a comprehensive approach to global symbolic and material 
shifts that affect food itself, food cultures and nutritional practices. The 
case of the dabbawalas helps us to understand how taste— the discerning 
and distinctive aspect of any food-related practice — is becoming a key 
factor in worldwide cultural transformation. Taste is not conceived 
simply as a sensorial impulse, but as a signifier, a cultural construct that 
is socially engineered to transform and lend new meaning to geo-political 

Finally the appendix provides an extensive introduction to the 
fundamental issues that made my fieldwork possible. It analyses the 
polysemic nature of cultural diversity, embracing the multitude of 
meanings attributed to the subject. The diversity theme is usually 
addressed in relation to practices of social acceptance or rejection of 
otherness within organisations and institutions. In this perspective, 
my research is closely entwined with notions of identity, gender, and 
economic and social status in ethnic and religious minorities. 

The book's title, Feeding the City, grew out of this consideration and the 
verb "to feed" is used here in the sense of "providing nutrition". It is an 
explicit reference to the way a nutritional regimen, a specific diet, affects an 
organism's state of good or poor health. Stretching the organic metaphor, 
food can be seen as a vector of phenomena expressing the easy or uneasy 
coexistence of different cultures in urban contexts. In this perspective, the 
way the city feeds itself is crucial for a broad cultural anamnesis of Mumbai. 
Thanks to the daily work of the dabbawalas, these cultural shifts come to light 
as the meals are ferried around the entire city in a distribution system that 
offers a tangible testimony of cultural coexistence mediated by one of its 
most potent signifiers, and the one most essential to human physiology: food. 

As the twenty-first century ushers in an era of increasing anxiety with 
regard to humanity's ability to feed itself, we also witness the gradual 
global ascendance of a unified cosmology of tastes well as a heightened 
concern with nutritional practices. This trend is driven by a growing 
consensus on the importance of food— what it means, how it is produced 
and processed — and the deeper ethics of its preparation and consumption. 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the 
Dabbawalas: Origin and 
Development of a Parallel 

But if we do look back we must also do so in the knowledge— which gives 
rise to profound uncertainties— that our physical alienation from India 
almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely 
the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities 
or villages, invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind. 

— Salman Rushdie 1 

Midday in Mumbai: teeming traffic besieges the city, lines of cars creep 
forward at a snail's pace, people walk in the road, buses swerve into their 
bays for a split second, rickshaws and taxis veer into every tiny space, 
while placid cows browse amongst all kinds of garbage. Hooting horns 
and chaos. Lunchtime is coming up for most civil servants, office workers, 
and school children. Nearly two hundred thousand people are waiting for 
their dabbawalas, who arrive promptly with the tiffins they have to deliver. 2 

1 Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 (New York: Viking, 
1991), p. 10. 

2 The term "tiffin" refers to a light meal popular during the British Raj. The word first 
made its appearance in the early 1800s and derives from the English verb "to tiff", 
referring to the consumption of a midday meal, and "tiffing", a slang term meaning the 
consumption of food and drink between meals. It survives in Mumbai's daily vocabulary 
to indicate a meal eaten away from home, as well as being used by the dabbawalas 
as a synonym for dabba. For further information, consult K. T. Achaya, Indian Food: 
A Historical Companion (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994). 

DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0031.01 

2 Feeding the City 

Dabbas make a long trip every day to reach the people expecting them: 
a journey through the winding streets of this metropolis, with its twenty 
million or so inhabitants, and a solid history that goes back almost one 
hundred and thirty years. 3 

Origins of an alliance 

The history of the dabbawalas runs parallel to that of Bombay itself. The 
archipelago that developed into the modern metropolis of Bombay became 
a centre of international trade during British rule. 4 The city was given 
to Charles II by the Portuguese as part of the dowry for his marriage to 
Catherine of Braganza in 1661. In 1668, the city was leased by the Crown 
to the English East India Company (operating at that time out of the port 
of Surat in present-day Gujarat) for ten gold sovereigns. It was not until 
about 1780 that Bombay began to exceed the importance of Surat, India's 
leading trading port. Thanks to exports of raw cotton and opium to China, 
what had appeared as a dreary fishing town— where the British had not 
expected to survive for more than two monsoons— became the second 
most important city of the colonial Empire. 

The 1861 American Civil War gave further stimulus to Bombay's 
development as the British textile industry moved its bases to India and 
used the city as a production and export centre. The metropolis experienced 
startling economic growth and attracted significant amounts of capital 
for the creation of new investment and employment opportunities. The 
most evident aspect of this change, a trait of Bombay still seen today, 
was a migrant workforce arriving from outlying rural areas in search 
of employment. The gradual extension of roads and railways (the first 
railway line from Bombay to Thana was opened in 1853) made it easier 
for increasing numbers of people to travel all over India. The end of the 

3 Dabba means "box" in Hindi. In this case it means a special container, made of steel and 
consisting of three separate sections that assemble into a cylinder about eight inches high, 
used specifically for taking lunch to work. The noun dabbaivala, formed by the noun 
dabba and the suffix wala— which turns the word into a compound noun— means "he 
who carries dabba". 

4 The city was named following the 1534 landing of Portuguese conquerors in the 
archipelago of seven islands known as Heptanesia (Greek for a "cluster of seven 
islands") in the Bronze Age. The islands of Bombay, Colaba, Mazagaon, Little Colaba, 
Mahim, Parel and Worli were called "Bom Bahia", the "welcoming port", by the 
Portuguese. When the city became part of British Crown possessions its name changed 
from "Bombaim" (the crasis of Bom Bahia) to Bombay. 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 3 

American Civil War and the ensuing crash of cotton prices were the first 
stumbling block in the city's industrial expansion. But when the Suez 
Canal opened in 1869, it reduced the distance to London by approximately 
three-quarters, and cotton exports became one of the major contributors to 
the colonial economy. Bombay, a point where the land meets the seas, was 
christened urbs prima in Indis by the British and grew into a commercial hub 
for the whole of India. 

The transformation from a fishing village to an important industrial 
city was partly the product of Bombay's connection to the British Empire. 
It actually became common to think of the city as the main driver of 
westernisation for the Indian subcontinent, although it was equally 
true that the centripetal forces moulding its commercial and industrial 
development were not just underpinned by western modernising forces. 
The Indian commodity market was linked to broader production and 
trade relations with the hinterland and with foreign markets (for instance 
trade in sugar, indigo and opium), 5 and its cotton mills relied on increased 
production and domestic market penetration. By 1920 Bombay held two 
fifths of India's total foreign trade, seventy per cent of coastal trade, and 
the majority of exports to the Persian Gulf and ports of East Africa. The city 
slowly evolved into a business hub, simultaneously turning into a political, 
administrative and educational centre where the arrival of new money 
created opportunities. It therefore attracted increasing numbers of migrants 
from all over India and the old continent, leading to the development of 
new forms of cohabitation and social organisation. 6 

A city of migrants 

Bombay's remarkable development was reflected in the evolution of its 
social and demographic profile. In 1661, the population was estimated at 

5 Giorgio Borsa, La nascita del mondo moderno in Asia orientate. La penetrazione europea e la 
exist delle societa tradizionali in India, Cina e Giapponc (Milan: Rizzoli, 1977). Kirti Narayan 
Chaudhuri wrote that "The colonial impact on Asia was not confined just to diverting the 
flow of trade in a longitudinal direction from the previous latitudinal flow; it reoriented 
Asian intellectual thought in a similar direction as well". See Kirti Narayan Chaudhuri, 
Asia before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 11. 

6 Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and 
the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); 
Gillian Tindall, City of Gold: The Biography of Bombay (New Delhi: Penguin, 1982). 

4 Feeding the City 

about 10,000; by 1872 it had risen to 644,405; by 1941 it was at 1,489,883. 7 
A series of events were decisive for this population growth which included 
opium trade with China; the outbreak of the American Civil War; the 
expansion of the textile industry and the end of World War I. 8 Of course, 
there were also times when this steady flow of people dropped, in particular 
at the time of the 1918 famine and influenza epidemic, but it never stopped 
completely. If a city's vitality can also be seen in its ability to attract, then 
Bombay has certainly never ceased to be the destination for the dreams 
of millions of people. This progressive demographic increase became a 
growth pattern characteristic of the city, a model that formed an urban 
cultural landscape with a policy of being open to migrants from different 
contexts, welcoming and integrating faiths, languages, and ethnic groups. 


1681 1891 1901 1911 1921 1931 

Figure 1. Percentage distribution of Bombay population classified by 

religion, 1881-1931. 9 

As is evident from the table above, in the years 1881 to 1931 the city was 
open to all types of worship but had a Hindu majority accounting for about 
two thirds of the resident population. Although not specified here, the 

7 Chandavarkar (1994), p. 30. 

8 Mainly thanks to the significant fortunes of the large Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy Parsi and Sons 
mercantile agency, the leading exporter to China of opium produced in Malwa, Gujarat; 
see Peter Ward Fay, The Opium War 1840-1842 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina 
Press, 1975). 

9 Source: Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business 
Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press, 1994), p. 31. 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 5 

category 'Hindu' embraces sister faiths like Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. 
Other religious groups were more or less minorities. The Parsees, for 
example, accounted for about five per cent of the population, but the role 
they played in trade and in business afforded them significant economic 
and political influence, despite their small number. 

The Parsees originated in Persia and were descendants of the last 
Zoroastrians, migrating to India in the sixth century and settling in present-day 
Gujarat to escape religious persecution by the Muslims. Attipat Krishnaswami 
Ramanujan tells the story that, when the Parsees arrived in Gujurat, the 
region's ruler opposed their presence and sent them a diplomat holding a 
symbolic message: a glass filled to the brim with milk, indicating that the 
container could hold no more. The Parsees then sent the monarch back his 
full glass of milk in which a spoonful of sugar had been dissolved, expressing 
their intention to mingle with the native population as sugar does with milk: 
sweetly and taking up no space. The ruler was pleasantly surprised by this 
gesture and welcomed them. 10 In the mid-1600s the Parsees moved from Surat 
to Bombay because the British Governor, Gerald Aungier, offered favourable 
conditions to those who wanted to come to the city. 11 One of the main 
requirements for settling in Bombay was that they agreed not to preach their 
religion, a pact still respected by the descendants of the ancient Mazdeists. 

The most important religious community after the Hindus was that of 
the Muslims, who made up about one fifth of the population. What the 
numbers do not reveal is that the Muslims (like the Parsees and Hindus) 
were and remain a heterogeneous group. Socially they are a stratified 
population of various sects: Shiites, Sunnis and Ismailis of the most diverse 
denominations. In Bombay there were two main groups: the Khoja and the 

10 Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan, "Food for Thought: Toward an Anthology of Food 
Images", in The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists, ed. 
by Ravindra S. Khare (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), pp. 221-50 
(p. 238). 

11 The complex history of the Parsees very briefly outlined here can be explored fully 
by reading Eckehard Kulke, The Parsees in India: a Minority as an Agent of Social Change 
(New Delhi: Vikas, 1978), or the excellent two-volume work by Dosabhai Framji Karaka, 
History of Parsees; Including their Manners, Customs, Religion and Present Position (London: 
Macmillan, 1884). John Armstrong defines Parsee migration as an archetypal diaspora, 
because the Parsees have succeeded in safeguarding the bonds with their ancient myths 
and their distinctive alphabet. See John Armstrong, "Archetypal Diasporas", in Ethnicity, 
ed. by John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 
pp. 120-26. 

6 Feeding the City 

The Khoja were a caste of traders established in the fourteenth century 
by a follower of the Agha Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismailis sect. 
The term Khoja is the Lndianised version of the Persian word Khwajah, 
meaning "respectable, rich person, wealthy merchant". Traditionally 
engaged in commercial activities, the Khojas are converted Hindus, who 
keep accounts in Hindi, and follow Hindu customs. In 1847, the Bombay 
High Court actually ordered that the Muslim law of succession was not to be 
applied to their communities. So, for instance, women are excluded from the 
right to inherit property. Moreover, the rules applied to marriage, divorce, 
birth and funeral rites are different, merging Muslim and Hindu practices. 12 

The Bhora, also known as "Bohara" or "Vohra", whose name derives 
from the Gujarati vohorvu or vyavahar, from the verb "to trade", are 
Shiite descendants of Hindus who had converted to Islam. The earliest 
communities can be traced back to Gujarat in the eleventh century and fall 
mainly into three distinct groups: Ismaili, Jafara, and Dawoodi. While the 
Ismailis swore loyalty to the Da'i Mutlaq in Yemen, the Jafara adopted Sunni 
Hanafi beliefs; after the schism, the Bhora Ismailis were heavily persecuted 
by local rulers. The Dawoodi, considered the best organised of the three 
groups, were the last to be formed by the two Da'i (the foremost being Tahir 
Sayf al-Din) and contributed to the shaping of the current community. The 
members of the Bombay Bhora community are chiefly small-scale itinerant 
vendors of bric-a-brac and trinkets or meat. Some became particularly 
wealthy by trading with China. As a consequence of this new-found wealth, 
some descendants of these families have had access to higher education, 
become judges or doctors, and are esteemed professionals in the city. 13 

Lastly, there are small communities of Christians and Jews who have 
distinguished themselves in the same way as the Parsees through the 
important role they have acquired in public and business life. Bombay's 
Jewish community is currently found mainly in Thane and it falls into three 
key groups: the Bene Israel (meaning "Children of Israel"), who are the 
most numerous and consider themselves the descendants of the first Jews 
who arrived in India about 2,000 years ago; the Malabar or Sephardic Jews, 
also still called "black Jews", whose ancestors came to India from Eastern 
Europe, Spain and Holland about 1,000 years ago, settling in Cochin; finally 

12 Reginald E. Enthoven, "Kojah", in The Tribes and Castes of Bombay, ed. by Reginal 
E. Enthoven, 3 vols. (Bombay: Government Central Press, 1921), vol. 2, pp. 218-30. 

13 Asaf A. A. Fyzee, "Bohoras", in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 12 vols. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960-2005), 
vol. 1, pp. 1254-55. 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 7 

there are the Iraqi Jews, called the "Baghdadi", who arrived in the late 
eighteenth century from Iraq, Syria and Iran, fleeing political and religious 
persecution; they expanded the trade network by setting up economic 
contacts with Singapore, Hong Kong, Kobe, Aleppo and Baghdad. The 
Bene Israel group is the biggest of the three Bombay groups and it built 
the first synagogue, Shaare Rahamim, in 1796. The community acquired 
particular prestige during the British Raj, when it emerged by developing 
its businesses and working for the British military corps. While maintaining 
eating (kosher food), religious (observation of the Sabbath) and hygiene 
(circumcision) practices typical of their faith, the Indian Jewish community 
has assimilated local customs and practices like language (predominantly 
Marathi and English) and the social caste divisions. 14 

The Christian-Catholic community has been present since the settlement 
of the first Portuguese in the seven-island archipelago, founded by the 
Franciscan friars who arrived on the ships coming from Europe. Historical 
evidence suggests that they landed as early as the first century AD, with 
St Thomas Apostle, who began his preaching from the southern coastal 
areas. The Syro-Malabaric church is one of Kerala's main Christian 
denominations and bases its liturgy on the Thomayude Margam (the law 
of Thomas). In the early period, Bombay Catholics soon built churches and 
monasteries, converting the local Koli tribes of fishermen. 15 

When the city was ceded to the British, missionary work was continued 
through the Church of Goa. The historical vagaries of this order are long 
and complex, and it is sufficient to remember that in 1720, members of 
the Goan clergy were expelled from the city for political reasons and the 
Vicar of Great Mughal (formerly Vicar of Deccan) was invited to protect the 
Catholic community with the Vatican's approval. Despite this, the Goan 
clergy always tried to recover its position within city government and 
in 1764 it established a "double jurisdiction" which took the name of the 

14 See Nathan Katz, Who Are the Jews of India? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 

15 The term koli actually means "spider" and in Marathi "the weaver of a web", a meaning 
derived from the work performed by this tribe. See Vinaja B. Punekar, The Son Kolis 
of Bombay (Bombay: Popular Book Depot, 1959), p. 5; Kavita Rane, An Observational 
Study of Communication Skills Involving Fish Retailers in Mumbai (unpublished MA thesis, 
University of Mumbai, 2005); and Sanjay Ranade, "The Kolis of Mumbai at Crossroads: 
Religion, Business and Urbanisation in Cosmopolitan Bombay Today", paper presented 
at the 17 lh Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, Monash 
University, Melbourne, 1-3 July 2008, available at 
files/2012/07/sanjayranade.pdf [accessed 20 July 2012], 

8 Feeding the City 

Vicariate of Bombay. Mumbai's Catholic community has numerous schools 
and non-profit charitable institutions that offer assistance to children, lone 
women and other vulnerable people. Its ethnic composition is quite varied 
because it includes Keralite, Goan, and Konkani Catholics (to mention 
just the areas of origin where the Catholic religion has its most massive 
presence), but also converted Kolis. Bandra is one of the areas with the 
largest concentration of Catholics in Mumbai, although they live all over 
the city. 16 Protestant history differs somewhat, because missionary activity 
was promoted by early settlers: to a lesser extent in the south by the Danish 
and Dutch; more intensely in the northeast and centre of India by British 
missionaries. 17 In Mumbai there are many Protestant churches, especially 
in the central part of the city, in the Malabar Hill district. 

Like the Parsees, these small communities of Christians and Jews play 
the role of "middleman minorities". 18 This term refers to those ethnic 
groups— often immigrants or those arriving in the wake of diaspora 
dispersions — that occupy an intermediate position within the social structure, 
which allows them to play a role of economic intermediation between social 
entities separated by relatively strict status demarcations. It is no coincidence 
that in history the middleman minorities emerged mainly within strongly 
segmented feudal societies (like Jews in Medieval Europe or Armenians in 
the Ottoman Empire) or those based on castes (for instance Parsees in India). 

16 Sebastian Irudaya Rajan, Catholics in Bombay: A Historical-Demographic Study of the Roman 
Catholic Population in the Archdiocese of Bombay (Shillong: Vendrame Institute, 1993); and 
Felix Alfred Plattner, Christian India (London: Thames and Hudson, 1957). 

17 Antonio Armellini, L'elefante ha messo le ali. L'India del XXI secolo (Milan: Egea, 2008), 
p. 151. 

18 The "middleman minority" theory was developed in the United States by scholars of 
immigrant socioeconomic integration strategies, in particular Edna Bonacich, "A Theory 
of Middlemen Minorities", American Sociological Review, 38 (1973), 583-94; and Edna 
Bonacich, "Middleman Minorities and Advanced Capitalism", Ethnic Groups, 2 (1980), 
311-20; see also Walter Zenner, "Middleman Minority Theories: A Critical Review", in 
Sourcebook on the Netv Immigration, ed. by Roy S. Bryce-Laporte, Delores M. Mortimer 
and Stephen Robert Couch (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1980), pp. 413-25. 
There should be an element of caution with regard to the original middleman theory. 
This "classic" view of middleman minorities tends to attribute a concrete nature to 

"cultural" elements of circumstances and provisional condition, like the sojourner status 
that is often the outcome of explicit exclusion policies or non-recognition of resident 
status/citizenship. The intention was useful but insufficient and not appropriate 
for grasping the complexity of the dynamics that today characterise the realities of 
minority immigrant entrepreneurs in the societies they enter. See also Ivan Light and 
Edna Bonacich, Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Koreans in Los Angeles, 1965-1982 (Berkeley: 
University of California Press, 1988). 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 9 

These minorities also succeeded in societies characterised by stable regimes 
in which the dominant class was separated from the subjugated class 
(as in colonial societies like the Chinese in the East Indies), or those marked 
by enduring implicit statutes of subordination, as was the post-colonial case. 
These societies typically have strong socio-economic polarisation linked 
to labour market segmentation and to cultural barriers that discriminate 
against particular members of society for ethnicity, age, religion, etc. 

Although middleman minorities are considered by the ruling classes as 
'foreigners who cannot be integrated" — and have often internalised their 
own "otherness" — they differ from other ethnic minority groups because 
of their role as providers of financial and business services. They enjoy a 
status midway between that of a ruling class and a subordinate class. Acting 
as mediators between producers and consumers, employers and workers, 
owners and renters, the elite and the masses, they bridge the status gap 
between the dominant and the dominated. However, the social buffer role 
played by middleman minorities is conditioned by the fact that they are 
still socially and symbolically vulnerable. This allows the elite to channel 
the resentment and hostility of subordinate classes in their direction during 
periods of heightened social conflict. In turn, this not only reinforces the 
ethno-religious and linguistic-cultural self-referencing (real or perceived) 
of these middleman minorities, but also their dependence on the stability 
of the predominant social structure. 

Initially, this "tendency to self-reference" was traced back by Edna 
Bonacich to a cultural orientation and social planning typical of the sojourner 
(in other words the diaspora migrant, the temporary resident, perpetually 
seeking a future return to the homeland left or lost). Several scholars of 
migrations now attribute it to the complex dynamics of interaction that 
middleman minorities develop with both the ruling and subordinate 
classes, especially during or as a result of social conflict. The precariousness 
of their social status often leads these groups to prefer self-employment 
and work involving business and finance, which ensure strong capital 
liquidity and mobility. There is also a preference for building communities 
that to the outsider may appear to have a strong internal solidarity and 
capacity to resist assimilation. The cohesion of these communities may 
also be strengthened through endogamic marriage strategies, policies and 
practices for safeguarding distinctive cultural traits, as well as forms of 
residential, community and other sorts of segregation. 

10 Feeding the City 

Mumbai's cultural and social ethnic stratification is reflected not only 
in the diversity of religions practiced in the city, but the multitude of 
languages spoken. 

H iH. 

1911 1W1 1531 

Figure 2. Percentage distribution of population classified by language 

spoken, Bombay, 1911-1931. 19 

Although half of the inhabitants speak Marathi, no ethnic group is 
linguistically dominant in social and business interaction. The constant 
arrival of new migrants increased linguistic complexity and led to the 
evolution of a lingua franca or Creole known as Bombay or Bambaiya Hindi. 
Although this vernacular constantly changes, it is still spoken because of its 
use in 1950s and 1960s Bollywood films. 20 

Bollywood is the quintessential form of Indian film-making not only 
due to the large number of films made each year in Bombay, but because 
Bombay film companies release their films in Hindustani (a pluricentric 
language made up of Urdu and Hindi). Hindustani is not restricted to 
a particular area: it is spoken across India alongside other local dialects 
and was the vehicle that carried Bombay-made films across the nation. 
Although the arrival of sound forced production companies to make 
films in the different languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent, 
with Hindustani it was possible to reach a wide and varied audience. 

19 Data: Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business 
Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press, 1994), p. 33. 

20 For further information on Indian films, see Elena Aime, Breve storia del cinema 
(Turin: Lindau, 2005), p. 83. 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 11 

Bombay's human, cultural, and linguistic diversity made it a driver of 
initiatives for evolving a method of communication accessible to all its 

Understanding that Bombay was— and still is— a city of immigrants 
is crucial to interpreting its cultural and social stratification. Most people 
who came to seek employment in the city maintain a close bond with 
their place of origin. Work in the city has typically been irregular and 
employment conditions often precarious, so ties with the rural homeland 
are common, serving as a safety net in the event of unemployment. The 
bonds maintained with these rural areas were a transitional stage in 
the formation of the urban labour force in the early period of Bombay's 
industrialisation, but were also a basic risk management strategy. Research 
undertaken in 1970 indicates that there was a steady integration process for 
migrant labour reaching the city, so this is a constant of Bombay life given 
that the active population is still composed mainly of migrants. 21 The city's 
unique urban format is underpinned by the fact that the work situation in 
Bombay is precarious and erratic, and that the labouring classes maintain 
ties with their place of origin. These villages are both a stable source of 
recruitment for cheap labour and a kind of outlet valve for excess labour in 
times of crisis. Many urban workers regularly send home money or goods, 
thus holding onto the status and rights acknowledged for their position in 
the family. 

These migrants support themselves and their families by working 
as "coolies" in offices and homes. 22 At the time of the consolidation of 
the British Empire, the term "coolie" was used by the British to identify 
low-skilled employees, often bound by multi-year contracts for forced wage 
labour (indentured workers) in the colonies. The term was soon adopted 

21 Kunniparampil Curien Zachariah, Migrants in Greater Bombay (London: Asia Publishing 
House, 1968). 

22 The etymology of the English word "coolie" is uncertain. The most likely derivation is 
from the Hindi/Urdu word quit (a labourer) or the Tamil kuli (a wage), but some think 
that it comes from the Turkish word kuli (a slave). One last theory is that it originates 
from the name of an aboriginal Gujarat tribe, the Kuli or Kholi, subdued and forced into 
menial jobs by the British after the foundation of their commercial ports in Surat and 
Bombay. See Rana Partap Behal and Marcel Van Der Linden (eds.), Coolies, Capital, and 
Colonialism: Studies in Indian Labour History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 
2006); Daniele Cologna, Cina a Milano (Milan: Abitare Segesta, 2000); and Yann Moulier 
Boutang, De I'Esclavage an salariat: Economie historique du salariat bride (Paris: Presses 
Universitaires de France, 1998). See also Marina Carter and Khal Torabully, Coolitude: An 
Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora (London: Anthem Press, 2002). The word "coolie" 
is still used to mean those workers who perform heavy duties, like porters who carry 
luggage at train stations. 

12 Feeding the City 

by all European powers engaged in colonial expansion. In 1833, the British 
Empire abolished the slave trade, before abolishing slavery in its colonies in 
1874; from then on, Indian and later Chinese coolies became the equivalent 
of African slaves for European industrial imperialism. They were essential 
for the development and commercial exploitation of the colonies. The term 
coolie indicated an unqualified, waged, unskilled worker and could also be 
used to some extent to describe a cotton mill worker, although this group 
usually retained links with farm work in their villages. So, despite having 
moved their permanent residence to Bombay, they acquired a different 
social status. 

Clearly the term "model" applied to Bombay cannot be taken in its 
usual meaning of a "grid" required to explain a particular circumstance, 
as this would attribute an unrealistic uniformity to the Bombay migratory 
trend. Emphasis should fall on the huge differences from one region to 
another, and even amongst the individual villages of origin, the prevailing 
climate, nature and conditions of work. Whatever their origin or reason 
for leaving their home, almost every migrant in India preserved ties to 
their village and caste. The interaction between those rural bonds and the 
city's economic structure has fostered the development of a unique Bombay 
culture founded on practices, languages and expressions rooted in ethnic, 
class and caste origins, and a process of constant transformation. 

From the legend 

This ever-shifting social and economic landscape was the destination of 
Havji Madhu Bacche, a young man from the Marathi-speaking district 
of Pune. 23 Towards the end of the 1880s, an anonymous Parsee banker 
employed Bacche to go to his home in Grant Road, collect his tiffin and 
deliver it to his office on Ballard Pier. The young man was one of the 
many Maratha workers in topi caps who could — and still can— be seen 

23 There are few relevant bibliographic sources and in most cases they refer to various 
interviews given by the president of NMTBSCT, Raghunath Medge. A number of 
researchers look at the figure of Bacche: C. S. Parekh, The Dabbatvallas of Mumbai 
(unpublished PhD thesis, Narsee Monjee College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai, 
2005); Ramasastry Chandrasekhar, Dabbaivallahs of Mumbai, Richard Ivey School of 
Business, University of Western Ontario, 2004, available at 
PDF/mba-new-student-portal/2011/MBA/Dabbawallahs_of_Mumbai_(A).pdf [accessed 
28 October 2012]; and a manuscript I was given by Medge, written by an anonymous 
author, with the title: A Visionary Who Created History Through the Dabbaioallas. 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 13 

at any crossroads, waiting to be hired for all sorts of work. This was the 
beginning of a legend: 24 the creation of a food distribution system that has 
progressively increased its catchment area. Raghunath Medge, president 
of the dabbawala association Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity 
Trust (NMTBSCT) tells this story: 

It was 1890 when the system started, when the British were colonising 
India and Bombay was starting to be very well-off. There were railways, 
roads, post offices, government offices but people had to eat 'fast food', 
so Parsee women began cooking food as a business, like a canteen. They 
would cook any type of food people wanted, because in Bombay there are 
all sorts of food: Gujarati, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Maharashtra, vegetarian, 
non- vegetarian... really all kinds of food. Unskilled workers could be 
found at any crossroads, sitting there in their topis. One day a woman said 
to one of them 'Go deliver food from here to there' and 'I'll give you work, 
I'll pay you'. And he replied '111 do that'. At the beginning he carried about 
twenty, twenty-five tiffins, and he'd take them from Girgaon to VT Station. 

Certainly Bacche's vision was crucial in establishing the regular group 
of workers, because he soon realised that his capacity to increase this 
delivery service relied on his ability to find people who could carry heavy 
wooden dabba trays. What seemed like typical "coolie" work soon took 
on a different connotation to straightforward delivery work, thanks to 
the formation of an association governed by a set of internal rules and 
with a solid reputation for reliability. Bacche's son describes his father's 
personality and professional ethics, and how he founded the dabbawala 

I remember that the dabbawalas got started like this: at that time my dad had 
gone to Bombay and was delivering food as a job. Other people already did 
this and he set up a union of all these people. 25 He collected money from all 
the people in the union and created pnja [worship] for Satyanarayan [the 
"true Narayan" or "the true God", a name given to Vishnu/Krishna]. He 
then called a meeting, inviting all those who delivered food and he collected 

24 Giulio Sapelli points out that if "the person in question has died, only entelechiale traces 
remain, which is to say the 'footprint' left by their work. This trace is the course of 
Jungian individuation, the gradual emerging of the 'silhouette' of an intention and a 
representation that is increasingly precise and clear". See Giulio Sapelli, "Mitobiografia 
per le scienze sociali", in Giannino Bassetti: L'imprenditore raccontato, ed. by Roberta 
Garruccio and Germano Maifreda (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2004), p. 261. 

25 Testimonies are unanimous in affirming that the association started up in 1890, but also 
that the dabbawala service already existed in Bombay in a non-organised form. The date 
must therefore be considered as the moment in which Bacche began this type of work, 
not as the moment the service was invented. 

14 Feeding the City 

money from the mukadam [the group leaders], so they could buy a place to 
build the first dharamshala [a resting place for pilgrims] in Bhimashankar. 
He also invented a series of rules, for example that you couldn't take another 
dabbawala's dabba. Then he occupied the baggage compartment on the train, 
saying that it was for our dabbawalas. The union continued this way. My 
father believed that everyone had to be fine. He listened to everyone's 
opinions, then acted for the good of all. My father did good. 

Bacche acknowledged that one of the most important and most immediate 
strategic issues was to identify the resources for implementing the 
delivery service in the best way. In order to manage a group organically, 
he needed to know the people, speak the same language, and share the 
same relational code; hence recruiting his fellow villagers seemed the 
fastest and most logical method. 26 To this day, the dabbawalas continue 
to arrive from the same rural area in the Pune district, about three hours 
from Mumbai by train. The area includes small villages like Audar 
and towns like Rajgurunagar. It is a chiefly agricultural region and the 
uncertainty of work in the fields continues to drive people to go and 
seek paid employment in Mumbai. These migrants were (and are still) 
largely illiterate and therefore destined to expand the ranks of Mumbai's 
unqualified labour, so a chance to deliver tiffins was considered more 
desirable than agricultural work. 

Bacche's chief merit was his creation of an organised working group, 
which then served as the foundation for the NMTBSCT. The sheer simplicity 
of the idea— a service for transporting food prepared at home by the family 
to a customer's place of work— underlies an entrepreneurial strategy based 
on the ability to exploit the interaction with Mumbai's complex ethnic and 
social configuration. The success of the NMTBSCT is based on developing 
trust between the dabbawala and the customer, on the ability of the work 
group to deliver lunch on time, on the excellent reputation for reliability 
and punctuality and, finally, on the organisation's ability to interact with 
the city's cultural fabric. Direct testimonies of customers of the past are 
not available, but a reconstruction of their profile indicates the precious 
climate of trust in which the dabbawala once worked, and still does. 

26 The lack of direct testimonies makes it impossible to express considerations on the 
premeditated nature of this decision. The sociology of migrations and ethnic business 
studies suggests, however, that compatriot ties are often a very valuable ethnic resource 
for anyone setting up a business. See, for instance, Light and Bonacich (1988); and 
Alejandro Portes (ed.), The Economic Sociology of Immigration: Essays on Netiuorks, Ethnicity, 
and Entrepreneurs (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1995). 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 15 

Bacche's son, who is also an NMTBSCT dahhawala and a retired NMTBSCT 
director, describes how the meal delivery system began: 

I can't remember the name of the Parsee woman who gave my father the job, it 
was a long time ago. But this Parsee lady called Bacche and he started working. 
He wasn't the only one. It was a group: one person alone couldn't have 
delivered tiffins all over Bombay. The group started with fifty-sixty people. 
My father started in 1930 and Bacche in 1890. There were other people with 
him. Bacche died in 1955 and my father in 1980. Bacche's brother's son lives 
in the village and my house and my land are there; so is my mother. The 
dabbawalas' first customers were Parsees, Christians and Gujaratis who 
worked in the offices, in the Girmi cotton mills. Our salary in 1940 was twenty 
rupees per month, yes, twenty rupees. Our wages increased gradually. At 
that time the British were in charge and in Bombay there were eighty-four 
cotton mills in different areas: Girgaon, Dadar, Mahalaxmi, Grant Road. 
We had a lot of customers in the cotton mills and that was where I used to 
deliver the food. When they closed down work didn't fall off because the 
cotton mills became business centres. But that happened after many years, 
after ten years. We would collect tiffins from restaurants, Parsee dhabas, a 
very cheap sort of restaurant, and we'd deliver them to customers. Some 
were Christian, others vegetarian and non-vegetarian, some were Gujarati. 

Figure 3. Picture of Madhu Havji Bacche. By kind permission of 
Raghunath Medge. 

16 Feeding the City 

Serving the Bombay elite 

The first customers for the dabbawalas arrived in the late nineteenth century 
and were largely members of the British and Indian elite. There were few 
European women in the British community able to cook western meals, 
and homes often had several chefs who cooked western and Asian-style 
food. 27 The British adapted to food in India in increments: there was a 
first phase during which Indian food was appreciated by British travellers, 
but was slowly replaced by a mixed cuisine with its own recipes, called 
Anglo-Indian food. 28 This cuisine is also the result of several cross-cultural 
marriages between Europeans and Indians. The term "Anglo-Indian" 
initially referred to British residents in India but was later used to denote 
the offspring of mixed marriages where there was usually a European 
father and an Indian mother. The difficulty in adapting to local eating habits 
encouraged Europeans to use the services of some Parsee kitchens on those 
occasions when they could not eat at home, and they would request for 
meals to be cooked in a way resembling the recipes of their homeland. 29 In 
addition, Bombay's poor hygiene conditions and chronic lack of drinking 
water made it even more difficult to adapt to the city's cuisine. 

The Parsee community had an important role as culinary middlemen 
between the British colonial class and the city's immigrant populations. 30 
As is typical with middleman minorities, especially those who have been 
persecuted in the past, many Parsees became bankers, merchants or doctors. 
Industrial and social change in Bombay provides ample proof that Parsee 
and British cultures harmonised, not least of all because the Parsees adopted 
English as their preferred means of communication. 31 To understand the 
importance that the Parsees acquired in the business field, it is useful to 
remember that they were the only non-Europeans to be shareholders in the 
Bank of Bombay, the Bank of Bengal and the Bank of Western India. 32 

The less evident side of this preferential relationship between European 
and Indian society (although it is the most important for this study) was the 

27 See Tindall (1982). 

28 For more information on Anglo-Indian cuisine and accounts by British travellers on their 
relationship with Asian food, see Achaya (1994); and Patricia Brown, Anglo-Indian Food 
and Customs (New Delhi: Penguin, 1998). 

29 This information comes from various conversations with Raghunath Medge. 

30 See Kulke (1978). 

31 Ibid. 

32 Borsa (1977), p. 139. For a more recent historical reconstruction, see Michelguglielmo 
Torri, Storia deU'India (Bari: Laterza, 2000). 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 17 

creation of kitchens, generally managed by Parsee women. These women 
used their husbands' networks of acquaintances to provide lunches for 
Bombay's upper middle classes and elite. What made Zoroastrian cuisine 
a major medium of cultural exchange was its extreme adaptability to 
Hindu influences. Parsee cuisine actually has few dietary restrictions and 
reflects both its Persian heritage with its strong non- vegetarian component, 
and the adaptation of this cuisine to the dietary habits acquired during 
the initial settlement in Gujarat, a region that is prevalently vegetarian. 33 
This positive fusion was particularly suited to the taste of the Europeans 
and Indians living in Bombay. 34 In the early twentieth century, the city 
was the common denominator in the different lifestyles that periodically 
came together. 33 It progressively revealed itself to be a place where every 
language in the world was spoken and where everything was eaten, with a 
healthy appetite. Medge describes Bombay's culinary cultural fusion: 

Mahajiraoji Bacche was the founding member of the dabbawalas, starting a 
small family business in 1890. Then there was my father and seven or eight 
other people. But the dabbawalas didn't cook the food. The Parsees began 
cooking in canteens. We started this system, we dabbawalas. When the British 
Raj began to develop Bombay, it built railways, post offices, stations. At that 
time there were no restaurants in Bombay, which was a commercial city 
and still is. Then came the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Russians. 
People from all over the world settled in the city to work. Since masala 
spice mixture has cloves, cinnamon and many other ingredients that are 
not grown in India, those people came here and brought those spices to sell. 
At that time there were British government rules, people worked in offices, 
but there were no restaurants. Then we started to sell food from canteens. 
When I say we, I mean our family. We are an extended family, all farmers, 
living in hilly areas. We weren't rich. We couldn't read or write. Back home 

33 The teachings of Mahavira, the master who founded the Jain religion in the sixth century 
BC, and of other Jain scholars of the eleventh and twelfth centuries generated a huge 
following for vegetarianism in Gujurat. Their doctrine was reinforced by the disciples of 
Vishnu with similar principles. About 70% of the Gujarat population today is thought to 
be vegetarian. See K. T. Achaya, "In India: civilta pre-ariana e ariana" in Storia e geografia 
deU'alitnentazione, ed. by Massimo Montanari and Francoise Sabban, 2 vols. (Turin: Utet, 
2006), pp. 144-52. 

34 Many other types of cuisine developed following European colonisation of India and 
the coming together of all these cultures. For instance, Goan cuisine from Portuguese 
colonisation; Pondicherry cuisine from French influence; and Keralite cuisine from a 
widespread Catholic influence. 

35 The reference to the "common denominator" is from Mark- Anthony Falzon, Cosmopolitan 
Connections: The Sindhi Diaspora, 1860-2000 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), 
p. 101. The author defines Bombay as playing a connective role in the melting pot 
concept, which arose and evolved mainly in the United States. 

18 Feeding the City 

the extended family just took care of the land: farming, livestock, some sold 
milk and dairy products. Everything depended on the rainy season. The 
rest of the people, who didn't have a job, came to Bombay to earn money, 
because if it doesn't rain, there are no crops. 

Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of literature on the evolution of 
Parsee cuisine precisely because this invisible daily art was performed 
by women, and the recipes were handed down orally, from mother to 
daughter. 36 Nevertheless, it would be wrong to think that in the organisation 
of Bombay's food practices the role of women did not act as the focal point 
for a wider overview of food. 37 

... and the cotton mill-workers 

The profound urban changes in Bombay also led to an increasing demand 
for the dabbawala service. Merchants selling products like diamonds, 
gold and clothing became an important part of the association's clientele. 
However, it was Bombay's skilled cotton workers who used the meal 
delivery system the most. From the construction of the first mills in the 
mid-1800s to their closure in 1980, Bombay-Mumbai bore witness to the 
changes brought about by the growth, expansion and decline of cotton 
manufacturing. The mill-workers made up a complex ethnic group, 
comprising mainly men arriving in the city from outlying villages in search 
of work. Through family, caste and shared geographical origin, they found 
employment as factory workers and supported the family back in the 
village. 38 

36 For an explanation of many Parsee recipes, see Niloufer Ichaporia King, My Bombay 
Kitchen: Traditional and Modem Parsi Home Cooking (Berkeley: University of California 
Press, 2007). Parsee food traditions are also explained in Bhicoo J. Manekshaw, Parsi Food 
and Customs (New Delhi: Penguin, 1996). 

37 Historian Caroline Walker Bynum has already highlighted the close relationship 
between women and food, especially in European medieval religious history. Widening 
the field of inquiry it can be seen that men may be involved in the production of food 
but it is usually women who convert the food into meals and women who control the 
household. The scholar's considerations can be applied appropriately to other contexts. 
See Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food 
to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). For a study of the 
relationship between women and food in more recent times, see Maria Guiseppina 
Muzzarelli and Fiorenza Tarozzi, Donne e cibo. Una relazione nella storia (Milan: Bruno 
Mondadori, 2003). 

38 See Chandavarkar (1994); Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar, One Hundred Years One 
Hundred Voices: The Milhoorkers of Girangaon: An Oral History (New Delhi: Seagull 
Books, 2004); Jan Breman, Of Peasants, Migrants and Paupers: Rural Labour Circulation 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 19 

More often than not, these workers' private lives were spent in small, 
crowded rooms in a building where they slept, called a chazvl; meals were 
taken in small eating places called khanawals. These places were run by 
widows or women who had to support their families when their husbands 
were unemployed, and offered a dignified alternative to prostitution. 
Bombay's female workforce was, for the most part, not involved in factory 
work. The city was primarily home to male immigrants: in 1864 there were 
about 539 women for every thousand men, and the ratio was virtually the 
same in 1921 (about 525 per thousand). 39 This gap between women and 
men was closely connected to the migration model prevalent in Bombay: 
the precariousness of working conditions forced men to leave their families 
back in the village, returning periodically to work in the fields or when they 
lost their city jobs. It was only with the expansion of the cotton industry after 
1880 that the demand for female labour grew substantially, but subsequent 
enforcement of maternity laws and limited working hours for women and 
children meant that female recruitment once again decreased. 40 This gradual 
detachment from the industrial world relegated women to occupations in 
domestic services, catering, small-scale sales or prostitution. It was mainly 
widows who fell prey to the latter, as they were victims of a strong social 
stigma and often had no access to other sources of livelihood. 41 Female 
unemployment was also the expression of asymmetrical gender relations in 
India. For this reason, these small eateries were very important for women, 
giving them the opportunity to secure a livelihood and avoid destitution. 42 

and Capitalist Production in West Bengal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); and 
Jan Breman, Labour Migration and Rural Transformation in Colonial Asia (Amsterdam: Free 
University Press, 1990). 

39 Chandavarkar (1994), p. 94. 

40 J. C. Kydd, "The First Indian Factories Act (Act XV of 1881)", Vie Calcutta Review, 293 
(1918), 279-92; and Alexander Robert Burnett-Hurst, Labour and Housing in Bombay: 
A study in the Economic Condition of the Wage-earning Classes of Bombay (London: King & 
Son, 1925). 

41 Deepa Mehta's film Water (2005) describes the condition of widows in traditional 
Indian society. Much has been written on the status of widows in India and it is worth 
remembering that until a few years ago, and this is still so in some parts of India, widowed 
women were blamed for not safeguarding the life of their husband, either through 
neglect or through bad karma. A widow with no adult sons was the living example of the 
precarious inequality between men and women. The position changed with the presence 
of a son, which allowed the woman to be considered the honoured mistress of the house. 
See David Smith, Hinduism and Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003). 

42 For a history of women in the cotton mills, see Menon and Adarkar (2004). For more on 
khanawals, I recommend Dina Abbott, "Women's Home-Based Income-Generation as a 
Strategy towards Poverty Survival: Dynamics of the 'Khanawalli' (Mealmaking) Activity 
of Bombay" (unpublished PhD thesis, The Open University, 1994). 

20 Feeding the City 

The administrator of the Annapurna Mahila Mandal, an association 
for battered women, describes exactly how the catering service has been a 
source of redemption: 

The Annapurna Mahila Mandal women's association was founded on 
8 March 1975 by Prema Purav, on the occasion of International Women's 
Year. Prema Purav's life was fully committed to social action. She was born 
in Goa, in the small village of Khodeye, and she soon began working and 
helping her brothers, patriotic fighters against the Portuguese, taking food 
to the forest for them. She arrived in Bombay in 1953 where she completed 
her education and worked as a social activist for women's rights. Her 
involvement in the millworkers' union was crucial for understanding the 
often difficult conditions of women working in factories. In fact, most of the 
women who came to Bombay had no education, were in low-skilled jobs 
and were not protected by any maternity laws, so when they had children 
to raise they lost their jobs. The owners of the cotton mills would send them 
away and they became unemployed. In 1975, about seventy-five thousand 
women were sent home from their cotton mill jobs. The situation was further 
aggravated with the great strike of 1982, during which many workers lost 
their jobs. They had no education, so what could they do? Many had come 
from a village where they had left families and had to send money home. 
Women who had followed their husbands to Bombay and were employed 
as factory workers began to earn money to support their families doing what 
they knew best: cooking. That was how the khanawals— small, family-run 
kitchens— developed, offering simple, cheap food for workers who couldn't 
afford to eat at a hotel or a restaurant. Women cooked, selling and sending 
the food to workers coming from all the Maharahstra districts, and to street 
vendors. Certainly not all unemployed women began to do this sort of work, 
some returned to the village, others decided to organise themselves, despite 
being illiterate. But to start any sort of business they needed initial capital. 
Unfortunately they had no guarantees to offer a bank and so they turned to 
private moneylenders. Interest was very high and the women began to be 
exploited sexually, psychologically and financially by these loan sharks. In 
1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi began to change bank loan laws and this 
allowed women to start businesses. Loans from banks had interest rates of 
four per cent per year: moneylenders wanted twenty per cent a month. It was 
precisely Prema Purav, a woman who had contacts with unions, who went 
door to door to inform people of this opportunity. So they began borrowing 
money from banks and formed a group, an organisation. As time passed, 
the organisation was given the name Annapurna', which means 'Goddess 
of Nourishment', because it was thanks to cooking that many women were 
able to escape difficult social and family situations. 43 And our customers 
are no longer just factory workers. We now serve offices, banks and schools. 

43 In Hindu mythology Annapurna is the goddess of food and nourishment. She is also 
considered the goddess of prosperity and abundance. In Sanskrit anna means "grains" 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 21 

The association is still present in Mumbai and has expanded its range 
of action, building refuges for jobless women in different parts of the city. 
The administrator of Annapurna Mahila Mandal, explains that it is also 
connected to dabbawala work because customers often use dabbawalas to 
transport food cooked by Annapurna: 

Mumbai office workers who cannot take food with them to work employ 
dabbawalas. As long as the khanawals existed, women cooked and carried 
the food, but after the foundation of Annapurna, customers began to send 
dabbawalas to pick it up. The association is not able to deliver very far away in 
Bombay, so the dabbawalas do it instead as they have a broader distribution 
network. Annapurna does not have its own dabbawalas: people who want 
its food send a dabbawala to pick it up and take it to their office. A similar 
structure now exists in Dadar (New Bombay) and the employees of several 
companies like Philips, Godrej and Tata order food, cooked without caste 
or religious distinctions. A number of factories have now been moved to 
the coast and most textile factories have shut down. Many workers who 
lost their jobs started small businesses, like greengrocers, and to help out 
with their financial needs the association set up a sort of micro-credit system 
to allow them to stock and start their businesses, thus avoiding the risk of 
borrowing from loan sharks. Some use the credit to educate their daughters. 
A third site is Navi Mumbai, where there is a multipurpose women's 
rehabilitation and health centre, with hostel facilities, now with more than 
fifty residents. Orphanages care for children up to the age of seventeen but 
when they have to leave they are without protection or work, so Annapurna 
adopts and trains them to work, as well as arranging weddings. 

In the past, the food brought from the khanawals was based on very simple 
regional recipes and sold at extremely low prices. "Eating out" was not a 
special event for workers but a choice dictated by daily survival: houses 
were small and crowded and cooking was almost impossible. 44 Only the 

and "food" but also "body/physical/shell", and puma means "full", "complete", "perfect". 
Annapurna gives food and she is also the goddess of the harvest, the protector of the fields 
so she is worshipped in order to have a good harvest. She is the goddess of the kitchen and 
she gives to the poor. She is the generous one (puma). Traditionally she is depicted with a 
container of food in one hand and in the other a spoon that she holds out to the faithful. She 
also feeds her husband, Shiva, putting food in the human skull he uses as a bowl. As goddess 
of food she also transforms food into energy. The food she gives to Shiva actually gives 
him the energy (shakti) for achieving his wisdom and enlightenment. In the same way that 
Annapurna symbolises the divine aspect of nourishment, through food the cook not only 
feeds the body but also provides the energy for those who eat to follow their own destiny. If 
the food is prepared following a sacred ritual, an outright alchemy is created. For this reason, 
images of Annapurna are found in kitchens, next to canteen tables and in restaurants. 
44 Frank F. Cordon, "Dining Out in Bombay/Mumbai: An Exploration of an Indian City's 
Public Culture", in Urban Studies, ed. by Sujata Patel and Kushal Deb (New Delhi: Oxford 
University Press, 2006), pp. 390^13. 

22 Feeding the City 

middle class could afford to eat at home and share the meal with their 
families, while the working classes used the khanawals. These places became 
real centres for socialisation, where it was possible to get together and talk, 
and where people could order tiffins to take to work. Dabbawalas followed 
the schedule of the cotton mills, delivering tiffins for each of the three factory 
shifts: from eight in the morning to two in the afternoon; from two to eight 
in the evening; and at night, from eight to one in the morning. There were 
about twenty dabbawalas working in Girgaon, Mumbai's industrial district, 
and each dabbawala managed forty customers. 45 

Interviews reveal the intense relationships that the dabbawalas built up 
with the millworkers. Medge observes: 

The Girgaon cotton mills were big factories. There are still some in Girgaon 
and Dadar. The Kohnoor, Down and Poddar cotton mills in Dadar are now 
shopping centres and offices. At the time of the cotton mills, we had plenty of 
customers. We delivered tiffin to three shifts. Morning, afternoon, and night 
shift. During the strike the cotton mill was shut down. Workers lost their 
homes because many of them lived in the mill grounds, so they went back 
to the village. When the cotton mill went on strike, workers didn't have the 
money to keep their families, so they had to sell everything. We had no tiffin 
work and we went back to the villages to work in the fields: two hundred 
dabbawalas. There were two hundred dabbawalas working for the cotton 
mills because we delivered on three shifts. Each dabbawala had about forty 
customers so there were two hundred with forty customers for each shift. 
Customers working both in the cotton mills and in the offices. There were 
office workers, managers and shopkeepers, but not those who did heavy 
work. Anyone who had a good salary ordered tiffin, middle-class people. 
Why would a low-earner order tiffin? Poor people brought food from home, 
in their hands or in their pockets. Nowadays we have customers among 
the people who work in the MIDC factories, the Maharashtra Industrial 
Development Corporation, but it is a very small industry. Nowadays, [the 
big] industries are located outside Bombay. 

A member of the association also remembers: 

Tiffin work started with Raghunath Medge's father, who worked first of 
all at Bombay Churchgate station. When the British Raj was in power, then 
there was work at Churchgate. The people who worked at Girni had tiffin 
delivered to them. Bank workers were all Marathi and lived in a call, which 
at that time was a building made of wood with long corridors and many 
single rooms. People went out early in the morning and tiffin was delivered 
later. Now Girni has closed. A man would deliver tiffin there, carrying it on 

45 This data was provided by Raghunath Medge. 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 23 

a tray on his head because there were no bicycles in those days, so we used 
the tray, and that was how the job started. As one man wasn't enough, one 
more was added, and since two weren't enough, a third was added. And 
now work has increased in the Girni, Lower Parel, Mahalakshmi, and Grant 
Road areas. And with time the network has grown. Any job where there are 
human relationships, stress and weariness grow and grow, and the work 
doesn't stop. It continues this way, it doesn't finish. The start was with the 
Girni workers. Now the cotton mills are closed in Mahalakshmi and Lower 
Parel, but that was where we started. 

From the early 1900s until its slow decline at the end of the century, 
Bombay's economy was closely bound to the cotton industry. With the 
gradual shutdown of its main manufacturing companies, Bombay began 
its transformation process from a colonial industrial city to a metropolis 
where social and political dynamics began to play out after India's 
independence in 1947. Cotton mill profits were invested in the growth 
of an industry aimed at emancipating India from its ties with the United 
Kingdom and there was an attempt at a self-governing policy privileging 
the growth of the petrochemical, engineering and food industries. Growth 
lasted until the 1970s and brought with it increased employment in the 
city. 46 The changes also reflect in the history of mills that had shown a fairly 
balanced product quality profile until the 1950s. 

Nonetheless, the city's post-1947 reconfiguration shows how the textile 
industry was forced to convert to fit into an economic system no longer 
bound by its (asymmetric) relations with British industry. Cotton mill 
production began to differentiate and work was decentralised outside of 
Bombay, with a progressive loss of bargaining power for the primarily 
Marathi-speaking workers. Product differentiation brought a demand for 
an unskilled workforce that was easily intimidated, which allowed for a 
maximisation of profits but at the expense of the safety, job stability and 
wage levels of the workers. This phase culminated with the great general 
strike of 1982-1983, when more than 250,000 workers gathered in the 
streets of Bombay. 47 The strike failed in its aim because mill owners used 
it as a pretext to close down unproductive sites, increasing the price of 
cotton clothing. The closure of the cotton industries also altered urban 
morphology, emptying the centre (which is geographically southernmost) 

46 Sujata Patel and lim Masselos (eds.), Bombay and Mutnbai: The City in Transition 
(New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003). 

47 See Herbert W. M. Van Wersch, The Bombay Textile Strike, 1982-1983 (New Delhi: Oxford 
University Press, 1992). 

24 Feeding the City 

of production facilities that were moved out into suburbs like Thane and 
Navi Mumbai. 

The strike, which paralysed the cotton mills for almost eighteen 
months, had a significant impact on city life and on the work of 
the dabbawalas, since their main client base was forced to return to 
the villages after becoming unemployed. In Bombay's golden age 
of manufacturing, white-collar workers were apparently not the 
dabbawalas' main customer as they are today. An interesting degree 
dissertation on civil servants, for example, makes no mention of the 
use of a tiffin service as a preferred way of consuming the midday meal 
at work. 48 The NMTBSCT's secretary, Gangaram Talekar, explains the 
city's economic transformation and the consequent change of dabbawala 
clientele like this: 

In 1982 the cotton mills went on strike and at that time several dabbawalas 
were members, while others were employed. In those days dabbawalas 
took food from the khanawals and delivered it to customers in the cotton 
mills. There used to be a great many but they've closed now. The wives of 
the millworkers would cook and provide food. The word khanawal means 
someone who delivers tiffin, exactly like a dabbawala. But now they don't 
exist anymore. Lots of workers were our customers and we lost many after 
the strike. But we had no real problems at the association because it will 
continue to operate as it always has. Like a bus that has forty passengers on 
board, if some passengers get off, the bus carries on, what else can it do? We 
need to go on. We found new customers who arrived after the cotton mills 
closed and shopping centres opened in their place. The cotton mills have 
become business areas with small companies, factories, shops... They were 
there before, they're there today, and tomorrow theyll still be there. 

... and the Mumbai middle classes 

During the progressive decline of the textile district, other multinationals 
like Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) and Bata set up business in 
Bombay, facilitating the transition from an industrial to a service economy. 
In the last two decades of the twentieth century, Bombay recovered its 
role as a global city thanks to a number of key contemporary phenomena: 
the end of the bipolar geopolitical order; the emergence of new global 
governance frameworks; and the kind of social and cultural phenomena 

48 R. N. Bhonsle, Clerks in the City of Bombay (unpublished MA thesis, University of Bombay, 1938). 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 25 

that are considered typical of the postmodern condition. The city assumed 
a central role in the distribution of capital and information flows, and as 
a production platform for products and innovations in a post-industrial 
service industry economy. 

The expansion of an economy linked to the service sector promoted 
the growth of new social classes, including a Marathi-speaking middle 
class, which became crucial for Mumbai's future. 49 Following the 
reorganisation of Indian states according to their linguistic identity in 
1960, the state of Maharashtra was created by dividing the territory of 
the Bombay Presidency (which at the time included Gujarat). This was 
also the period when the Shiv Sena movement became established in 
Bombay, later evolving into a Hindu populist and nativist party. The 
Shiv Sena party suggested a programme of positive discrimination on 
an ethnic basis, seeking a voice for Marathi-speaking people. Although 
traditionally relegated to the lower rungs of the social ladder and jobs 
without status, the Marathas are demographically the largest ethnicity. 
They now began to demand a more important role in decision-making 
processes concerning municipal policies. The expression of this 
demand for economic and social representation evolved alongside the 
disappearance of classic forms of work organisation. There was above all 
an identity-type resistance, a possible vehicle of new forms of democracy 
but also of xenophobic outbreaks and religious fundamentalism. 

In the mid-1990s, Bombay became Mumbai. The Shiv Sena party running 
the state of Maharashtra at the time proposed changing the city's name in 
line with a nation-wide process of altering names that were considered to 
be an expression of British influence. Mumbai derives from the name of 
the goddess Mumba, the divinity who is the patron of the Koli fishing tribe 
that originally inhabited the archipelago where the city developed. 50 This 
is how Medge describes it: 

'Mumbai' means 'Mumba Ai'. Mumba is the name of the goddess and Ai 
means 'mother' in Marathi. There is the Temple of Mumba Devi. The goddess 

49 SeePatelandMasselos(2003). 

50 Recent studies of the Koli goddesses of Mumbai have shown that the religious beliefs 
and practices of this community have changed since the late nineteenth century. 
Vicziany and Bapat suggested that Mumbadevi has been increasingly marginalized 
by the Kolis and has become absorbed into the practices of the Marathi and Gujarati 
communities of Mumbai. See Marika Vicziany and Jayant Bapat, "Mumbadevi and 
the Other Mother Goddess in Mumbai", Modern Asian Studies, 43 (2009), 511-41, DOI: 

26 Feeding the City 

protects the people here. Those who come to Bombay, who behave honestly, 
work honestly, will never find their bellies empty. This is what is believed, 
what is thought of the city of Bombay. 

The change of name was popular with the Marathi-speaking people because 
it was already used in both Marathi and Gujarati, while those who spoke 
Hindi usually called the city Bambai. In this sense, the official name change 
emphasised the transition process from a colonial to an indigenous slant. 
Then, on 4 March 1996, the name of one of the most archetypal buildings of 
British Bombay was also changed when Victoria Railway Station became 
the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus. 31 

The overwhelming reaction of the citizens to the city's change of name, 
was that they did not see this step as the semantic appropriation of a 
primary identity, but as the loss of what has been defined as Bombay's 
'proper name", the expression and metaphor of the diversity of India, 
the image of hope and modernity. 52 Here the lesson of historian Eric 
Hobsbawm comes to mind, suggesting that the invention of tradition was 
a strategy for the assertion of functional identity to achieve political ends 
particularly suited to the nationalist ideology. 53 Asserting the continuity of 
a suitably selected historical past allows practices of a ritual or symbol to be 
established in order to consolidate a social unit and corroborate its primal 
authenticity. 54 This was the meaning attributed to the change of name for 
many Indian cities: the desire to revive a primitive, "traditional", authentic, 
native vision of the place. This quest for authenticity actually achieves a 
converse effect of quite stale artificiality because, as Hobsbawm writes, 
'Where the old ways are still alive, traditions need neither be revived 
nor invented". 55 The name Bombay was an expression of the colonial era, 
but not an emblem of colonialism. It symbolised a multi-ethnic Creole 

51 The importance of the figure of the leader Shivaji in the city of Bombay and state of 
Maharashtra will be discussed in Chapter Two. "Shiv Sena", Shiva's Army (the reference 
is to Shivaji), has turned this historical figure into the cornerstone of nativist ideology 
(based on the concept of bhumiputm, "son of the soil"), which claims greater collective 
rights for the Maratha than those currently afforded to this population. The party reveals 
a strong Hindutva (Hindu fundamentalist and anti-Muslim) inspiration. 

52 Thomas Blom Hansen, Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay 
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). 

53 See also Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of 
Nationalism, rev. edn. (London: Verso, 1991). 

54 Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 8. 

55 Ibid., p. 10. 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 27 

cosmopolitanism, and here was an attempt to replace it with an identity of 
definite religious and ethnic connotation. 

In the 1990s, Mumbai aligned with large global megalopolises, 
increasing the relevance of the tertiary sector, in particular financial 
services (the city is the home of the stock exchange), communications, IT, 
banking and the Bollywood film industry. The city was therefore driven to 
produce and market goods and services aimed at maintaining a lifestyle 
appropriate to a society in which a highly-developed tertiary sector plays 
an increasingly important role. 56 Despite everything, Mumbai continued to 
be distinctive for its huge variety of languages, religions, caste hierarchies, 
domestic rituals, festivities, forms of prayer and ways of dressing and 
cooking. All these aspects coexist in close proximity: sometimes they 
overlap; sometimes they are quite separate. 57 

It is precisely an attention to diversity that characterises Mumbaikar 
awareness, although cohabitation does require a continuous process of 
accommodation that is not always peaceful. 58 Mumbai culture does not 
appear to be the exclusive domain of a community, or a particular economic 
activity. The common denominator in this complex coexistence of overlapping 
hierarchies is a migrant identity: almost all Mumbaikars are immigrants or 
descend from immigrants. In the city there is a conviction that no one will 
be denied their chance of social mobility and self-realisation, a conviction 
that acts as a sort of horizontal organisation factor to alleviate the pressure 
to move up and advance in society. Moreover, the city continues to welcome 
and "handle" newcomers: small traders from South India; dairymen and 
farmers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar; Hindu and Muslim taxi drivers; Goa 
Christian middlemen; wealthy Sindhi merchants from Karachi; and so on. 59 

The city's economic and social transformations have not decreased the 
dabbawala workload. The system has been able to adapt to the changes 
dictated by the constant flow of people who decide to live in the city for 
varying lengths of time, and proves that this delivery network can adapt 
perfectly to every new customer. According to one NMTBSCT dabbawala: 

With the closure of the cotton mills, we stopped delivering there. When 
businesses close, tiffin delivery stops. And if they close it's because there are 

56 SeePatelandMasselos(2003). 

57 Sujata Patel and Alice Thoner (eds.), Bombay: Mosaic of Modern Culture (New Delhi: 
Oxford University Press, 1995), p. xiii. 

58 Ibid. The violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims in 1992 to 1993 are a case in point, 
showing a progressive intolerance towards "foreigners". 

59 Ibid., p. xix. 

28 Feeding the City 

problems there, internal reasons. Now lots of companies have shut down in 
Bombay. They've moved. Some to Andheri, some to Malad, others to Kandivali, 
some of them outside Bombay. Their delivery service has been stopped. 
Like any company that has internal problems, right? Problems with 
payments or bonuses. The same goes for the cotton mills. Before the cotton 
mills closed, our network grew and grew in Bombay. What we did first for 
the cotton mills at Girgaon and Lower Parel, spread all over Bombay. From 
Andheri to Churchgate, we spread everywhere. That's why we haven't had 
problems after the closure of the cotton mills. Yes, the cotton mills have 
closed down, but that didn't cause us any problems. 

As this eyewitness says, the changes to Mumbai's economic and industrial 
structure have altered the dabbazvalas' customer profile and number to some 
extent. The data below show that despite the changes, there has been a constant 
increase in customers, dropping slightly only in the period that included the 
1980s strike and Bombay's progressive social and economic reconfiguration. 

- Number nf 

—Number nf 

Figure 4. Dabbazvalas and their custumers, 1900-2003.' 

The data does not present an exact profile of the people using the dabbawala 
service today, but it does show that one of the main user bases is essentially 
that part of the Indian middle class with a fixed salary. 

It is no easy task to define the Indian middle class, which is a highly 
diverse social group. The Indian National Council of Applied Economic 
Research defines as "middle class" those who earn between US $4,000 and 

60 Data: Chandrasekhar, Ramasastry, Dabbaivallahs of Mumbai, Richard Ivey School of 
Business, University of Western Ontario, 2004, available at 
PDF/mba-new-student-portal/2011/MBA/Dabbawallahs_of_Mumbai_(A).pdf [accessed 
28 October 2012], p. 17. 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 29 

$21,000 a year, but these parameters can actually only be applied to six 
per cent of India's population. The economic proportion was then adjusted 
using a parameter of daily earnings that considered $5-$10 a day to be 
a middle-class income. 61 A recent study conducted by CNN-IBN and the 
Hindustan Times, on the other hand, suggests adopting a criterion based 
simply on the consumer profile, monitoring the ownership of possessions 
like cell phones, colour televisions and motor vehicles. This definition 
covers about twenty per cent of the Indian population. The difficulty in 
finding an exhaustive definition for the parameters of the middle class has 
led some scholars to wonder about the legitimacy of applying a typically 
western label to Indian society's intermediate income ranges. The concept 
of "middle class" is not merely statistical; it also embraces complex aspects 
like lifestyle, self-image, consumption profile, aspirations, etc. It might be 
more practical, as Rachel Dwyer says, to accept that the Indian middle class 
is very different from its western equivalent, since it includes civil servants, 
teachers, doctors, lawyers, white-collar workers, businessmen, but also 
film stars and military personnel. 62 

Some of these categories are upper-middle class, others are 
lower-middle, and they can be found in big cities that include Bombay 
and Calcutta as well as in smaller industrial and commercial towns. 63 The 
disparity between the large cosmopolitan cities and the rest of rural India 
shows how economic parameters are often inadequate for defining the 
identity of this slice of the population: what is needed for survival in 
a Bombay slum might offer a far more comfortable lifestyle in another 
location. 64 These inconsistencies are frequently perceived as a symptom of 
the social contradictions that undermine modern India and in part this can 
be seen in a dual definition of the middle class — traditional and modern, 
representing two distinct, complementary styles. 65 The traditional middle 

61 Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, "India's Middle Class Failure", Prospect, 30 September 2007. 

62 Rachel Dwyer and Christopher Pinney, Pleasure and the Nation: The History, Politics and 
Consumption of Public Culture in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001). 

63 For an overview of the Indian middle class, see Pavan K. Varma, The Great Indian Middle 
Class (New Delhi: Penguin, 1998); Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase and Timothy J. Scrase, 
Globalisation and the Middle Classes in India: The Social and Cultural Impact of Neoliberal 
Reforms (London: Routledge, 2008); and Christoph Jaffrelot and Peter van der Veer, 
Patterns of Middle Class Consumption in India and China (New Delhi: Sage, 2008). 

64 See William Mazzarella, "Middle Class", in the online encyclopaedia South Asia Keywords, 
ed. by Rachel Dwyer (2005), available at 
keywords [accessed 26 June 2012]. 

65 Ibid., p. 5. 

30 Feeding the City 

class can be traced back to the modernising drive promoted by Nehru 
after independence; it takes its cue from the old British elite's preferences 
and tends to ensure a certain continuity with the pre-independence 
administrative and linguistic model. The modern middle class, conversely, 
is attuned to what occurs in the planet's global metropoles, has a 
post-cosmopolitan colonial vision, and seeks the expression of a new 
Indian nationalism with a lifestyle moulded by specific consumer profiles. 

This distinction is particularly important for research into the Mumbai 
meal delivery system. Although there is a huge amount of food available in 
the city, it is not considered like any other merchandise. If it were, customers 
would not use the dabba service: they would buy lunch anywhere. The 
decision to eat home-cooked food represents the continuity of a certain idea 
of tradition, suggesting that nourishment is actually what Arjun Appadurai 
calls "a powerful semiotic device", with tangible and intangible forms that 
are able to convey relationships with production and exchange. 66 The tiffin 
service means being able to eat home-cooked food at work and this simple 
act placates the city, reaffirming the specificities of each community within 
its boundaries. 67 On one hand material goods are expressed in a western, 
commercial language, while on the other, moral goods continue to speak 
the language of ethnic, caste and ritual purity traditions that cannot be 
understood if they are isolated from the person's cultural beliefs. 

A small component of India's disparate middle-class population is 
represented by the businessmen who move frequently from one Indian city 
to another and also travel to major western capitals. These businessmen 
promote a new eating style hallmarked by the presence of foods with 
regional, caste and community influences typical of an ethnic origin, but 
revealing the influence of international western or Asian-style cuisine. 
Their wives do not necessarily have a link to their regional past, so they 
copy recipes from cookbooks written in English by Indians no longer living 
in India. 68 This category does not make frequent use of the dabbawalas, but 

66 Arjun Appadurai, "Gastro-Politics in Hindu South Asia", American Ethnologist, 8 (1981), 

67 Madhugiri Saroja A. Rao, "Conservation and Change in Food Habits Among Migrants in 
India: A Study in Castro-dynamics", in Aspects in South Asian Food System: Food, Society 
and Culture, ed. by Ravindra S. Khare and Madhugiri Saroja A. Rao (Durham, NC: 
Carolina Academic Press, 1985), pp. 121^0. 

68 Arjun Appadurai, "How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary 
India", Comparative Studies in Society and History, 30 (1988), 3-24. 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 31 

does seem to embody a food style that is helpful in understanding part of 
the Mumbai population. 

Today, the new horizon for the delivery service includes school children, 
staff in large shopping malls, new tertiary sector professionals and all those 
who want to eat home-cooked food with guaranteed hygiene standards in 
an increasingly polluted city. 69 Medge explains: 

People use our service because in Bombay pollution is really increasing: 
food, the use of bad oil, poor quality flour, all products you buy might 
be of poor quality. At home there's a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter 
who cook the food themselves. The food is clean, you know what you're 
cooking... it's organic. 70 In Italy there's one type of food, but in Bombay 
it's not like that. There are many people with many cuisines: Punjabis 
eat one type of food, Marathis eat a different type, Gujaratis yet another 
type... and restaurant food may not appeal. It's not like the food cooked 
by a wife or a mother. There are Parsees, Christians, all kinds. In southern 
India they eat rice with fish, Punjabis eat rice with chickpeas, Gujaratis eat 
lentils, rice and purl [a type of fried bread]. In Bombay there are people of 
every community and they choose different items. The food prepared at 
home is better. The person who works in the office is a father, a husband, a 
son. Love is sent from home with the food, because it's been cooked by his 
mother, wife, daughter. Hygiene is guaranteed because once the wife has 
prepared food and put it in the container, the dabbawala never touches it. The 
tiffin contains a packet which is filled with food. The dabbawala wouldn't 
even have time to open the containers. The working day is from nine in 
the morning to midday, and they have to get moving before lunchtime to 
deliver, so they don't even have time to chat because they're so busy. There's 
pressure because they have to be on the train at these times. People trust the 
dabbawala so much that they put money, train tickets, a pen the husband may 
have forgotten, eyeglasses, medicines, all sorts in the tiffin. Sometimes, if 
there's been a quarrel, the wives may send a note that says 'sorry'. We pass 
on so many messages. 

A job handed down from one generation to the next 

As lifestyles come and go, tiffin delivery appears to be an element of 
continuity throughout Mumbai's food history. This continuity is the 

69 There is no classification of new customers being served by the dabbawalas. My 
information is based on data acquired during field interviews. The schematic description 
applied should not, however, be seen as a definite demarcation of customer profiles and 
the timeframe included is simply to assist understanding. 

70 In India the term "organic food" refers to products grown without the use of pesticides or 
chemical fertilisers, and inspired by the organic agriculture and animal liberation movements. 

32 Feeding the City 

expression of the respect the dabbawala nurtures for the customer. The 
dabbazvala-customer rapport is based on the understanding that good 
service guarantees survival for the worker and his family back in the village. 
As a result, the customers come to be seen as divinities because their 
patronage allows the service to thrive and continue. Medge puts it like this: 

We consider our customers as a god because they use our service. If customers 
didn't order our tiffin, our people, the dabbawalas, who are illiterate, wouldn't 
be given any sort of office job or similar work. Because they don't know how 
to read and write. The customers we take tiffin to are viewed as a god. With 
this work our members can help their family and the village, for education, 
for the sick. With this work, you earn money and serve God and the people. 
That is to say, faith is God. You find human satisfaction, personal satisfaction. 
This way, everyone is happy and Varkari Sampradaya is happy. You respect 
others and are given respect. You serve human beings. You do a good job. 
You donate food, so God will be pleased with you. This is the soul of Varkari 
Sampradaya. Through this teaching, all our dabbawalas put body and soul 
into their job. The dabbawala is happy, he has found the answer. 

The most striking aspect of the framework Medge describes is the 
relationship of trust that has characterised the customer-dabbawala 
relationship over all these years, often lasting from one generation to the 
next. The work of delivering meals has its roots in a lengthy history of 
families serving one another, handing down the keys of the relationship 
to the next generation. Medge's story is typical, as he inherited first his 
father's job, then his position as president: 

I came to Bombay when I was seventeen or eighteen. As soon as I finished 
school. I took the twelfth-year exam in the village, then I came to Bombay 
to attend college, to study economics and geography. Then I left college. 
When my father died in 1980, I became the head of the family so I started 
work, and I had to leave college after the first three years. My father was 
president for twenty years, then Dipkant was president for eight. . . after him 
there was another president and the job's been mine since 1992. Actually, 
my father came to Bombay in 1940. It was my uncle who brought him here. 
My uncle came here in 1890 and he brought family and friends to Bombay 
because it was developing so fast and tiffin work just increased quickly. You 
need one man, and I mean a strong man, for every thirty tiffins. You have 
to load and unload your bicycle, deliver the tiffins, carry the tray on your 
head. My father brought the people he needed and that's how his wife and 
family came to Bombay also. My father ran this business from 1940 to 1980. 
My uncle came also. Two uncles and lots of other relatives came to Bombay 
because it developed so fast. The local railway got bigger. At the beginning, 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 33 

the Bombay offices were in Fort Churchgate. So all the tiffins came from the 
city, to Fort Churchgate. Then the work left Fort Churchgate and got shifted 
to districts like MIDC, Virar, Borivali, Kandivali, Andheri, Kalyan, Thana, 
so dabbawala work spread there too. Now a tiffin can go from Andheri to 
Borivali, reach Virar, Churchgate, Thana, New Bombay, Vashi from Kurla. 
From Kurla to Maankhurd, from Maankhurd to New Bombay. 

The continuity of the dabbawala-customer relationship over time does not 
depend only on the dabbawala: it also involves those customers who choose 
to use the tiffin delivery service that is a family tradition. Entire generations 
have eaten thanks to dabbawalas and have thus granted the service the 
characteristics of a rite of passage for entering a food system that is the 
expression of Bombay-Mumbai culture. 71 Being familiar with the delivery 
service means recognising the customs that regulate Mumbai's food supply 
and, in the words of Michael Herzfeld, acquiring "cultural intimacy" with 
an extended community, distinguishing the specific aspects that define 
shared sociability. 72 

The arrangement takes advantage of the convergence and correlation 
of different elements that Tullio Seppilli says can be defined in five main 

a) a certain type of food; 

b) structures and techniques that support the production and 
circulation/distribution processes, and the preparation practices for 

c) institutional, organisational and behavioural methods applied to 
the consumption; 

d) forms of technical training and conditioning and transmission of 
"models"; alongside 

e) the cultural meanings and experiences of the psyche that refer 
directly or indirectly to food. 73 

71 Arnold Van Gennep, Les Rites de Passage (Paris: Picard, 1909). The author says that 
communitas, the rite of eating and drinking together, is a rite of aggregation, of union. 

72 Michael Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State (New York: 
Routledge, 1997). 

73 I use the eating system definition found in Tullio Seppilli, "Per un'antropologia 
dell'alimentazione. Determinazioni, funzioni e significati psico-culturali della risposta 
sociale a un bisogno biologico", La ricerca folklorica, 30 (October 1994), 8-9. 

34 Feeding the City 

The dabbawalas are consequently an expression of the Mumbai food system 
because in their context they bind together products, people, institutions 
and eating patterns through a network of relationships that merge into a 
recurring cycle. Awareness of being in this cycle, which returns regularly 
over the generations, gives the dabbawalas the self-assurance to manage 
their work. Lunch will always be a fundamental part of every working 
day, and this awareness allows the dabbawalas to see their future in positive 
terms. Talekar has this to say: 

Customers have confidence in the dabbawalas because they love their work 
and have no problems with tough work. Stealing from someone's wallet, 
stealing money: these are very bad things and in such things there's no 
satisfaction. You get no satisfaction. That comes from hard work, sweat. So 
they are happy at their work, no matter how tiring it is. We've had some 
customers for generations. For example, sometimes the father ordered tiffin, 
sometimes the brother, sometimes the son, so three generations have eaten 
thanks to us. Work is going well: there will always be people who eat, so 
there'll always be those who deliver their food. We delivered tiffin to the 
father, now to the husband, later well serve the children. 

History itself is seen to be the dabbawala's most loyal ally. People remember 
and recognise the dabbawala's reputation to the point of authorising them to 
deliver their personal effects. 74 In more than a century of constant ferrying 
of food across Bombay, the faces of thousands of people who have used 
this system as a privileged eating system can be discerned. In the words of 
one NMTBSCT dabbawala: 

Customers really trust us and above all because they know the food is in 
it. For example, if you forget an important document at home, you know 
your dabbawala will arrive before one o'clock. So the dabbawala goes to your 
house on time and the person who gives him the food at home can put the 
document you forgot in with the food. We earn your trust and then we grow 
it. If the dabbawalas don't make mistakes in their work, then youll trust them. 
Any company we work for trusts us if we don't make any mistakes. If we 
deliver for a year and there are no complaints about the tiffin delivery, then 
the customer can't suddenly complain, so they trust us. Bombs can explode 
and other things can happen, but trust in the dabbawala was already there, 
maybe for twenty years, maybe for forty years. . . it won't just go away. 

74 Roberta Garruccio writes: "Reputation and trust are parallel aspects and that is 
precisely what makes the individual's reputation important for the group". See Roberta 
Garruccio, Minoranze in affari. La formazione di un banchiere: Otto Joel (Soveria Mannelli: 
Rubbettino, 2002), p. 39. 

1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas 35 

The distribution system also has sustainability characteristics not only in how 
it preserves the underpinning of a given society, but also for its interesting 
employment potential, offering opportunities to the poor and the illiterate. 
The dabbawala's job is recognised as socially indispensable and requires 
significant skill in balancing food containers while travelling around the city 
at high speed on all kinds of transport. Besides the distribution system's very 
low costs and minimal environmental impact, it also gives some meaning to 
the lives of those who make it possible and it is perceived as a real "profession" 
that is handed down from one generation to the next. 

A short Story: A Dabbawala Family 

My father became a dabbawala twenty-five years ago; he is seventy now 
and he was born in a Konkan village called Raigar. He came to Bombay a 
few years after he married and when he was living here, he took another 
wife, so this was his second marriage. He has two daughters from his 
first wife and he has two sons and two daughters from his second wife. 
I am the oldest son and then there is my younger brother. He works 
with diamonds, he is a diamond quality controller. The office is near 
to our customers, where we deliver tiffins. My father came to Bombay 
on his own and he met my mother here. She also works as a dabbawala, 
her name is Lakshmibai, and we work together but her job is not so 
heavy: she doesn't carry such heavy weights as we do. I've been doing 
this job for four years. First I studied up to year twelve in Dadar, near 
Siddhi Vinayak Mandir. Then I did odd jobs... in Domino's Pizza and 
some electrician work, fixing cables. Then I decided to be a dabbawala: I 
decided I wanted to deliver tiffin. Now I'm thirty-eight, I live in Malad — 
Malad West— and I have a daughter. My mum helps look after our little 
girl when she finishes delivering tiffins, because my wife works. I like 
working here, I like it a lot. There is no stress. As long as you do your 
job, when you've finished you can go home. There is no pressure on 
dabbawalas. You do your job, you do it properly, deliver all the tiffins on 
time, that's the job. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in 

Varkari Sampradaya: faith and work 

They may be old or great, rich or poor, but they're all human beings. 
We have compassion for all human beings, we regard them with love. 
We distribute food to everyone we meet. We must help everyone. We protect 
our neighbours. If you have much, then give to the poor. God also gave life 
to the poor. Do not set them aside. God will give them something good. 
Everyone has feelings in their minds. Everyone should earn together and 
share. Eat together, putting things together, living together. 

— Raghunath Medge 

The tiffin delivery network is not only supported by a complex logistics 
system (that will be explored further in the next chapter), but also by a special 
moral code. This code is the expression of the interrelationship between a 
specific manifestation of the Hindu faith— which can be traced back to the 
Varkari Sampradaya sect— and India's unique cultural philosophy. This sect 
places food at the centre of its philosophy, considering it to be a metaphor 
for life and its primary, material impulses and spiritual aspirations. 

The Varkari Sampradaya ("the tradition of the masters") sect evolved 
in the wake of a drive for the renewal of the Hindu religious movement 
known as Bhakti, which preached pure devotion towards God as the way 
to salvation. 1 These movements developed from the fifth to the sixth century 
AD in Tamil Nadu, a state in the far south of India. Bhakti means "devoted 
love" or "loving union", and indicates a devotional practice not new to Hindu 
spirituality since it can be traced back through Vedic chants. In the tenth 

1 Giovanni Filoramo (ed.), Storia delle religioni IV: Religioni delllndia e dell'Estremo Oriente 
(Rome: Laterza, 1996). 

DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0031.02 

38 Feeding the City 

century AD, Bhakti became a more widespread popular movement. Its main 
attraction and its revolutionary drive within the Hindu tradition came from 
the idea of a spiritual path open to all, without distinction of gender or caste. 
It ensured the believer would come into direct contact with God without the 
need for a go-between. 2 These movements clashed with Hindu orthodoxy, 
which decreed that the Brahmin castes were the masters of rites and 
go-betweens in the relationship between worshippers and God, ideas that 
consequently gave Brahmins an overwhelming social status and power. 

Varkari Sampradaya is traditionally thought to have emerged around 
1100-1120 AD, although this specific Bhakti movement was consolidated 
by Jnanadeva, whose work Jnaneshvari was actually written in about 1290. 3 
This is a Marathi commentary on the Bhagavad Gita and is considered the 
Varkari bible. The text praises devotion to God and to gurus, whom the 
author says saved him from the corruption of worldly existence. It also 
celebrates the liberation obtained as a result of attaining mystical union 
with God; this union is the believer' s ultimate aspiration, although it 
always remains outside of their grasp, given the immensity of the divine. 4 
Jnanadeva was the first sunt 5 of Varkari tradition which also includes 
Namadeva (c. 1270-1350), Tukarama (1568-1650), Ekanath (c. 1533-1599), 
as well as several women like Muktabai and Janabai. 6 

All these figures still inspire the spiritual beliefs of the Mumbai 
dabbawalas. This religious current in the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box 
Suppliers Charity Trust (NMTBSCT) is manifested in a strong sense of 
egalitarianism among its members, who come mostly from subordinate 

2 For a detailed explanation of the manifestations of the Hindu gods Vishnu, Brahma and 
Shiva, see Alain Danielou, Mythes et Dieux de VInde, Le polytheisme hindou (Paris: Editions 
du Rocher, 1992). 

3 Felix Machado, Jnaneshvari: Path to Liberation (Mumbai: Somaiya, 1998). 

4 Gavin Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1996). 

5 Sant is the Hindi term used to define the religious mystic who acts as the spiritual 
representative within the community. It literally means "good man" and refers, in 
particular, to the figures of different castes born between the thirteenth and seventeenth 

6 Mary Ford-Grabowsky, Sacred Voices: Essential Women's Wisdom through the Ages (New 
York: HarperCollins, 2002); Aliki Barnstone (ed.), Tire Shambhala Anthology of Women's 
Spiritual Poetry (Boston: Shambhala, 2002). Tukarama is probably the most venerated 
Maharashtra sant. Tukarama soteriology was based on the love of God but, unlike 
Jnanadeva's preachings, there was an evident distinction between God and humanity, 
as he believed that two separate identities are needed to develop a relationship of 
love. Moreover, Tukarama stated that meditation plays a fundamental role in devotion, 
because liberation can be obtained only when a person is seated in meditation, repeating 
the name of the Lord. See Flood (1996), p. 194. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 39 

castes or are even Outcastes or Dalits. 7 Namadeva, for instance, was a tailor, 
and Tukarama was of the Shudra caste. Recently however, several scholars 
have argued that in failing to make open criticism of the caste system, 
the Bhakti movement has involuntarily strengthened it. Furthermore, the 
disciples of the various Bhakti sects refused to marry in compliance with 
the membership rules of their own varna and were thus forced to marry 
amongst themselves. Inevitably this attitude actually created new castes. 8 

Sants preached not only on social and political issues, but also a 
doctrine of salvation that included devotion to the name of God, devotion 
to their own guru, and the importance of religious communion, of 
coming together in what is called literally "true community" (satsang). 9 
The devotee must always be committed to the high moral values that are 
pivotal to the sant's teachings because these values are not only a source 
of personal dignity, but also allow devotees to develop mutual respect. 
Even if a person leads a modest life or lives in outright poverty, their 
conduct must always be upright and pay service to God, expressing their 
Bhakti by serving other human beings. Helping others is the equivalent 
of an act of devotion to God. 

Another unique aspect of Varkari Sampradaya is the importance 
attached to two female figures: in particular the mystical poet Muktabai, 
who was the sister and co-disciple of Jnanadeva; and Janabai, a servant 
of Namadeva who devoted verses to Vithoba, addressing the God as a 
female being named Vithabai. In Janabai's poetry, as in other works in this 
tradition, God can be both male and female, and may be addressed in the 
feminine, as one may address a mother. If the masculine is used, Vithoba 
is generally linked to Vishnu or the latter's avatar Krishna, and sometimes 
it is even linked to Shiva. Vithoba's cult defies sectarian division, as each 
year more than 6,000 Vishnu and Shiva devotees go on a pilgrimage to the 
Vithoba Temple in Pandharpur. 10 

7 It should be pointed out that Jnanadeva was a Brahmin excommunicated for failing to 
respect the orthodoxy required by his status. 

8 Michelguglielmo Torri, Storia dell'India (Bari: Laterza, 2000), p. 139. 

9 See Flood (1996), p. 193. 

10 Ibid. In the Hindu context, the term God usually refers to Vishnu or Krishna (an avatar 
and personification of Vishnu), or sometimes to Shiva, although the worship of Vithoba 
goes beyond sectarian divisions. In the Trimurti, Vishnu the Immanent is the centripetal 
force that creates light; Brahma is the Immense Being, the orbiting force that creates 
space and time; and Shiva/Rudra is darkness, the centrifugal force, dispersing and 
destroying all that exists. See also Danielou (1992). 

40 Feeding the City 

In 1940, sociologist Irawati Karve took part in a Varkari pilgrimage 
to Pandharpur, writing a personal description of the experiences of the 
devout. At the time, the Samyukta Maharashtra movement was promoting 
the creation of a "united Maharashtra", whose political materialisation 
did not come about until two decades later. 11 The political commitment 
to this movement was alive during the pilgrimage and the great flux of 
Marathi speakers were united by an increasing recognition of their own 
regional identity. 12 For Karve, the pilgrimage was therefore not just a 
religious event but also represented a metaphor of Maharashtra, a way 
of giving it a collective definition. 13 This political dimension is echoed 
in the historical moment when the Varkari heritage meshed with that 
of the great Maratha leader Shivaji, who lived between 1627 and 1680. 
In the seventeenth century, the Varkari sect was the most important in 
Maharashtra and the sant Tukarama had a close relationship with Shivaji, 
archenemy of the Emperor Aurangzeb. It is very likely that in the struggle 
against the Mughal Empire many Varkaris fought in the ranks of its 

Varkari Sampradaya beliefs focus in no small way on the role that 
food plays in spiritual life. In the poems of the Maratha sants Tukarama, 
Ekanatha, Namadeva and Jnanadeva, food is present as a metaphor of the 
encounter with the divine. The worldly or spiritual meal has the task of 
teaching the eternal values of egalitarianism and brotherhood among the 
masses. The spiritual practice implies a collective experience of the divine 
banquet where all are welcome, no food is impure, everyone sits in a 
circle, nobody is untouchable and all are fed to satiety. The sants may have 
chosen the food metaphor because it is more understandable to devotees 
who cannot read or write. 14 Although the link between the ethics of the 

11 The Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti was an organization of intellectuals and writers, 
founded in Pune in the 1950s by the leader Keshavrao Jedhe. It was formed to promote 
the creation of an independent state for Marathi speakers. 

12 See Irawati Karve, "On the Road: A Maharashtrian Pilgrimage", in The Experience of 
Hinduism: Essays on Religion in Maharashtra, ed. by Eleanor Zelliot and Maxine Berntsen 
(New York: State University of New York Press, 1988), pp. 142-73. 

13 Anne Feldhaus, Connected Places: Region, Pilgrimage, and Geographical Imagination in India 
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). 

14 Vidyut Aklujkar, "Sharing the Divine Feast: Evolution of Food Metaphor in Marathi 
Sant Poetry", in The Eternal Food: Gastro7iomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and 
Buddhists, ed. by R. S. Khare (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 
pp. 95-116. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 41 

dabbawala association and the Marathi sant message is not always clear, it 
does seem that the food delivery work of the dabbawalas is inspired at least 
in part by traditional Varkari Sampradaya ideals. 

Talking about himself, Raghunath Medge, president of the NMTBSCT, 


When I arrived, I was the only dabbawala with a degree and no one else had 
much of an education. Some had managed fourth year, some sixth, some 
first, some eighth. Then I understood that providing food really is the best 
gift of all. Giving food to someone is like serving God. Serving humanity is 
to serve God [it is serving God indirectly because God is in every person]. 
The personal intention is the supreme intention, which means that serving 
food will also bring earnings and receives God's blessings. Money is needed 
to keep your family. So serving food is the best gift. Serving people is like 
serving God. So the soul is satisfied. [...] I earn 6,000 or 8,000 rupees per 
month, so I'm satisfied. I earn what I need to keep my family. We're happy 
with this because in our heart of hearts there is the best peace achieved by 
those who provide this service. So God will give me something in life. My 
soul is satisfied. Serving people is like serving God. Providing food is the 
greatest gift there is and it is an important aspect of Varkari Sampradaya. 
Everyone believes this so they work well. Work as a team, earn money, 
build your life: this is my idea. Work is worship. If I do my work well it's 
like practising puja [worship] of God. 

It is difficult to say whether Medge's sentiment is shared by all the 
dabbawalas. Certainly the fact of forming a culturally homogeneous group 
allows members to identify with a shared religious and historical tradition. 
For example, the entire service takes a four-day break for pilgrimage to 
Pandharpur. 15 

15 There are two annual pilgrimages, which last 21 days, to Pandharpur. The first takes place 
during the Maratha month of ashadi (June/Iuly); the second during kartik (November/ 
December). The two pilgrimages culminate on the day of ekadasi, a day of austerity 
observed habitually by those who believe in sanatan-dharma or "Krishna consciousness". 
Eka means "one" and dasi is the feminine form of dasa, meaning "ten". Ekadasi is the 
eleventh day of the full or new moon, every month. On these special days devotees fast 
by abstaining from grains and legumes, and making a special effort to offer a service of 
devotion to Lord Krishna. On the day of fasting, if possible, physical effort should be 
avoided and the believers should dedicate themselves only to devotional services. It is 
believed that those who fast on this day obtain not only spiritual but also great physical 

42 Feeding the City 

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All our patrons are hereby informed that the Annual village 
Deity festival, of our Taltika Khed {Rajgurunagar), Mawal, Mulst. 
Dist. Pune will be held from Friday 30-3-2007 to Wednesday 4-4-2007 

(both day including). Sincte all of us come from the same village we all 
are required to attend the festival. Tiffin Carriers Service therefore will 
remain suspended for a 5 days from Thursday 5-4-2007 inconvenience 
caused to our Patrons is very much regretted resume the service from 
os usual. It should be noted that there shall be ho deduction in wages 
for 1. day during which our service is suspended During this period 
Mahavir Jayanti is already declared Public Holiday.- For more 
information contact Mukadam on Tel. 

Thanking you. . > 

Yours Faithfully, 
Mumbai Tiffin Carriers Association. 

Figure 5. Mumbai. This flyer informs customers that the service will be 
suspended for four days for the annual festival of the dabbawala 
villages of origin and one day for the national Mahavir Jayanti holiday, 
which falls between late March and early April of the Gregorian 
calendar and celebrates the birth of Mahavira, the spiritual teacher 
of Jainism. By kind permission of Raghunath Medge. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 43 

A tangible sign of the shared religious faith of the dabbawalas can also be seen 
in the dharamshalas, which are stopovers close to temples where pilgrims 
can stop to rest. Dharamshalas were erected in Bhimashankar in 1930, in 
Alandi in 1950, in Jejori in 1984, and in Pandharpur in 2000, complying 
with the wishes of Madhu Havji Bacche, founder of the NMTBSCT. He 
had initiated construction of the first two dharamshalas and over the years 
various dabbawala groups contributed to the completion of others via a 
voluntary donation system. Medge tells the story: 

Mr Bacche was Varkari and before coming to Bombay he arranged for 
dharamshalas to be built. The first was built in 1930 in Bhimashankar, our 
home village. There is the Jyotilinga Shankarji of Bhagavan, which we call 
Jyotilinga. We call his Shankarji temple Jyotilinga. But the dabbawalas have 
built four dharamshalas. One is Bhimashankar, the second is Alandi, the third 
is Jejori, and the fourth is Pandharpur. Tukaram, Jnaneshvar and Ekanath 
have written about Rambal Krishna [stories related to Krishna's childhood], 
as well as several poems about food. Also more generally about life, about 
samskar [the religious ritual that marks the main moments of Hindu life], 
about responsibilities people have. How to be devoted to God. How to 
respect izzat [family honour and prestige], the elders in the family. How 
to provide for your parents, worship God. Everything has been written in 
them. Nivritti is master of Jnanadeva, Mukta which is the abbreviation of 
Muktabai, Sopa who is the brother of Jnanadeva and Muktabai. 16 

A Short Story: The Dharamshala Caretaker 

I was born in Bombay and I started as a dabbawala when I was twelve. 
My dad was a dabbawala and he worked with Medge's father. I never met 
Bacche, I only knew that he was an important person. He was the one 
who organised the dabbawala association, turned it into a working group. 
When they were in Bombay, Bacche, Medge's father, and my dad stayed 
together. Living on the street. Bacche also had the idea of building the 
first dharamshala at Bhimashank. They asked for donations, one rupee, 
two rupees, five rupees. You can still see all the names. The money 
was collected over a couple of years: the mukadams gave most money 
because they ran the line and the dabbawala were employees. After he 
had collected donations, Bacche bought land and built the dharamshala. 
Over the years, we built the shops alongside. Here at Alandi there are 

16 My thanks to Pinuccia Caracchi, Professor of Hindi Language and Literature at the 
Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literature, Turin University (Pinuccia Caracchi, 
personal correspondence). 

44 Feeding the City 

lots of dharamshalas: the immigrants pay for them to be built, for example 
the fishmongers have one and so do the greengrocers. But we were the 
first. When I couldn't work as a dabbawala anymore, after I had three 
bicycle accidents, Medge asked me to come and be the caretaker here, at 
the Alandi dharamshala. I live here, where I have a room with my wife. 

Another aspect of dabbawalas' work that seems to be in line with the Varkari 
Sampradaya worship ethic is a belief that the human being is a go-between 
with God. There is a perception that food delivery constitutes an act of 
religious devotion that reveals the absence of discrimination toward others. 
Just as the Varkari Sampradaya devotees consider life to be a pilgrimage, 
the dabbawalas are constantly on the move for their work and for their faith. 
As one NMTBTC dabbawalas describes: 

Our tradition is really to see work as puja. First of all, in our work there's no 
discrimination. All of us are Hindus but we bring tiffin to Muslims, Christians, 
Gujaratis, and any strangers. But we don't discriminate a Hindu or a Muslim, 
or any other caste. We certainly don't. In the same way we lovingly serve food 
to a Hindu, we also serve others, like Muslims or Christians [...] This aspect of 
our work has never changed and there has never been a reaction like: "Don't 
touch a Muslim's dabba because he's not vegetarian". If we deliver food to a 
Hindu, we also deliver to Muslims. Our distribution network is still the same 
and doesn't change. Pick up tiffin, deliver tiffin: if we make a mistake and 
the customer gets angry, we accept it. We never say: "Brother, that's another 
jati'sV Anyone can do a job for money, but tiffin work is different. You can't 
discriminate or make caste and religious distinctions. Do your job, that's it. For 
example, at Marine Line there's a Muslim area and anyone who goes there 
is afraid and removes their topi [the cap worn by Hindus]. Hindu workers 
take off their hats when they go to a Muslim area. But we're not worried 
because we're doing our job and not discriminating anyone. Anyone who 
discriminates is afraid. We're not frightened. Dabbawalas work there every day 
because we have to earn money, but earning can be in different ways. This 
way, there is hard work. In human relationships, delivering food to another is 
a kind of job that means you cannot discriminate. 

The origins of a lineage 

The warrior prince Shivaji is our ancestor, the father of the father of our 
paternal grandfather; the whole family descends from him. Chattrapati 
Shivaji was king; Chattrapati Shivaji was an emperor. We were first his 
soldiers but that is now in the past. Now we don't have soldiers any more. 
Now there is the government. We have to earn money and to do that we 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 45 

have to work. Now we pay service to sadhus [ascetics] and sants. [...] This 
is strength. This is devotion. Strength is needed for all work. We learned 
this from him. To do business, kindness is required. We learned that from 
them. We learned kindness from the sants and courage from the emperor. 
We believe in the same Sampradaya as the pilgrims. Our families believe 
that providing food is punya, a worthy action that brings religious virtue: 
work is worship. Serving food is considered a worthy action. 

— Raghunath Medge 

The dabbawalas define themselves as descendants of the warrior prince 
Shivaji Bhonsle. He is considered by his followers to be the founder of the 
Maratha nation because of his relentless struggle against the hegemony of 
the Mughal Empire. The Emperor Aurangzeb, who contemptuously called 
him the "Deccan mountain rat" never managed to defeat the tireless rebel. 
The Emperor's objective was the gradual transformation of the Empire 
into a Muslim State, which was implemented— although never completely 
and never successfully— through the introduction of Islamic law and 
the elimination of a series of symbols that supported a secular state. The 
response was a Maratha battle against Muslims. Through guerrilla warfare 
Marathas avoided fighting out in the open, but destroyed enemy lines 
of communication and assaulted isolated detachments. This approach 
required a large number of soldiers, many of whom were recruited amongst 
Maharashtra farmers, who are probably the ancestors of today's dabbawalas. 
Shivaji's profound knowledge of the territory allowed him to achieve 
military success, which brought him a reputation as one of the fathers of 
modern guerrilla warfare. In 1674, during a traditional Hindu ceremony, 
he was crowned Chattrapati or "Lord of the Universe" by Ramdas, a sant 
of the Varkari tradition. Contemporary Indians consider Shivaji important 
for his contribution to the forging of a proud Hindu nationalist spirit in his 
people. 17 The dabbawalas see themselves as bonded to Shivaji by a shared 
Hindu faith, a fierce sense of independence from any domination, and 
patriotism towards the State of Maharashtra. 

Shivaji is a pivotal figure in Maharashtrian beliefs, fundamental to 
the understanding of events that developed the political and social scene 
of recent decades. The mythology of Shivaji is crucial to understand 
the symbolic reconstruction that underpins Indian systems of political 
rhetoric, in particular those of the Marathas. Sometimes the interpretations 

17 Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). 

46 Feeding the City 

of Shivaji's contribution differ between Western and Indian scholars. 
Without detracting from the importance of the Indian studies, they are 
often ideologically oriented within the Hindu nationalist movement, 
which reconstructs Shivaji's heroics and the Maratha movement using 
not entirely reliable historical sources. For example, in a work by the 
judge and reformer Mahadev Govind Ranade, Maharashtra's cultural 
unity already had its own common language with an important literary 
tradition, which then evolved into modern Marathi. According to Ranade, 
this process of linguistic and symbolic amalgamation may also have led to 
the development of shared social structures and moral codes. 

In this perspective, Shivaji's role was similar to an enzyme in a catalytic 
process that has already started, bringing together all Marathi-speaking 
people under one banner and instilling in them a stronger sense of 
cohesion and community. Ranade also attaches great importance to the 
Maharashtrian Bhakti movement, which is to say the Varkari Sampradaya 
that promoted a society without castes. 18 This, as well as other historical 
theories that emphasise Shivaji's non-Brahmin dimension, highlight how 
Maharashtra's political and religious history comprises a complex set of 
icons, symbols, and proto-ideological ideas which twentieth-century local 
Indian politics drew upon to develop an independent ideological scheme. 

Evidence that the anti-caste drive and religious renewal that had 
crossed the region from at least the twelfth century became more powerful 
under Shivaji is also found in the reconstruction of a dispute between 
Shivaji and local Brahmins, who had denied Kshatriya status to the 
Kunbi farming caste that later evolved into the Maratha warrior caste. 19 
Shivaji opposed this decision by handing out privileges and powers to 
Kunbis who distinguished themselves by their service (mostly military) 
to the monarch. This challenge to the Brahmin establishment is always 
an inspirational presence in the Bhakti movement. The story also gives 
a new symbolic significance to the pre-Aryan divinities: for instance, 
legend has it that the goddess Bhavani gave Shivaji her invincible sword. 20 

18 Interpretations were reconstructed thanks to Thomas Blom Hansen, Wages of Violence: 
Naming and Identity in Postcolo?iial Bombay (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 
pp. 26-27. For further information, see also Mahadeo Govind Ranade, The Rise of Maratha 
Power (Bombay: Bombay University Press, 1961). The author elaborated the work of 
Govind Sakharam Sardesai, New History of Marathas (Bombay: Bombay University Press, 

19 Warrior ideology was one of the Shiv Sena's key tools to penetrate the Maratha Hindu 

20 See Hansen (2001). 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 47 

Further proof of Shivaji's revolutionary potential can also be found in the 
post-Independence appearance of readings inspired by Ghandian and 
Marxist thought, celebrating Shivaji as the enlightened ruler who abolished 
forced labour and became the symbol of the battle to end the caste system. 21 
Notwithstanding the merits of their sources, these various 
historiographical interpretations stress that Shivaji is generally considered 
to be the father of Maharashtrian nationalism, a powerful archetype who 
can bring new life to Hindu identity. Shivaji's appeal was an important 
factor in the political debate surrounding the formation of the State of 
Maharashtra and the development of post-colonial Mumbai's urban 
culture. It appears that the ethical canons chosen by the dabbawalas 
are also taken from this legendary ancestor, including gender equality, 
non-discrimination, Hindu religious beliefs, and the idea of work as a 
source of strength and liberation from poverty. A retired dabbawala and son 
of the NMTBSCT founder says: 

At the beginning there was only one group of dabbawalas, then other groups 
formed. Then the groups joined together to create the association. That's the 
thing about dabbawala work: we can get jobs for everyone if we're a group, 
and that allows lis to deliver tiffin. If I work alone, I won't manage. If you 
serve people, God blesses you, and serving people is like serving God. The 
spirit is content if a job is done well, if it is performed properly. This is the 
Varkari Sampradaya way: live correctly, earn correctly, work correctly. Do not 
take work from others. Do not earn illegally. This is our Varkari Sampradaya 
law. We Varkaris do not see any differences to do with jati. 

Caste and descent 

Caste is a complex concept and should always be approached with caution 
and sensitivity given its social, economic, ethnic and religious implications. 
Many Indian intellectuals are uneasy when they see their society constantly 
described and interpreted through caste. There are primarily two reasons 
for this: the first is linked to the awareness that the analysis of India's 
caste system is largely a product of western Orientalism; 22 the other lies in 

21 See Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar, One Hundred Years One Hundred Voices: The 
Millworkers of Girangaon: An Oral History (New Delhi: Seagull Books, 2004). 

22 One European author who looked at the caste concept was French scholar Louis Dumont, 
certainly from a privileged standpoint: see Louis Dumont, Homo hierarchicus. he systeme 
des castes et ses implications (Paris: Gallimard, 1966). Nonetheless, a complex debate on 
the subject has also taken place in India. See Dipankar Gupta (ed.), Social Stratification 
(New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991); and R. S. Khare (ed.), Caste, Hierachy 

48 Feeding the City 

the fact that this analysis seems to reduce the complexity of India's (and 
its diaspora's) social and economic development to archaic, unchanging 
categories, without adequate consideration of the massive transformations 
that modernisation processes and migration dynamics have triggered in 
India. Rules regarding contamination caused by contact with individuals 
considered inferior by birth or for frequenting specific places (like 
hospitals) are being increasingly ignored. The connection between caste 
and professional specialisations, especially in urban contexts, has also 
lessened considerably. 23 

According to Ronald Inden, for far too long western scholars have 
described Indian society as essentially condemned to backwardness for 
a number of reasons, with a strong emphasis on the caste system. 24 The 
formal codifications of the system are proposed as a tool for interpreting 
the present without verifying what the reality has actually become. For 
Inden, this ahistorical and ingrained approach to Indian civilisation and 
society constitutes the main weakness of many Indological perspectives 
of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More recently in India, and 
particularly in the state of Maharashtra, caste rhetoric has been put to 
controversial political use, especially by the neo-Hindu movement of which 
the Bharatiya Janata Party is the leading political player. Looking for an 
alleged racial authenticity, the party used Mumbai as its stage for economic 
and social demands increasingly and explicitly based on linguistic and 
caste affiliation. 25 

To avoid these methodological and ideological pitfalls, it would seem 
best to introduce a historical perspective for analysing the relevance of caste 
in relation to the social organisation of the dabbawalas. 26 The main stages of 
this interpretive path are based on an introduction to the concept of caste, an 
analysis of the bond that links the formation of the Maratha caste with the 

and Individualism: Indian Critiques of Luis Dumont's Contributions (New Delhi: Oxford 
University Press, 2006). 
23 Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas and M. N. Panini, "Casta", in Enciclopedia delle scienze 
sociali, ed. by G. Bedecchi, vol. 1 (Rome: Treccani, 1991). 

24 Ronald Inden, Imagining India (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992). 

25 For an overview of Mumbai's political and social situation I recommend the meticulous 
historical reconstruction in Jim Masselos, The City in Action: Bombay Struggles for Poioer 
(New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007). 

26 I am aware that this perspective is based on sources selected by these same Orientalists, 
attaching a stereotypical reading of Indian society and culture, and is therefore liable 
to incur the same generalisations and inaccuracies. Hence the effort to use their 
reconstructions with due caution, and to bear in mind the scientific debate that arose 
around those issues. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 49 

historical figure of the warrior Shivaji and, lastly, the contextualisation of 
the development of caste dynamics in Bombay's industrial and commercial 
history. A detailed discussion of the political and social life of the city in 
recent decades does not fall within the remit of this book but, in order to 
understand the collective dabbawala experience, it is necessary to give a 
brief overview of the particular cultural-political sphere of which it is part. 

A brief introduction to the caste concept 

The main traditional sources of Hindu doctrine, the Purusha-sukta hymn in 
the Rigveda (late second and early first millennium BC) and the Manu Smrti 
(the Laws of Manu, first millennium BC), indicate that in the caste system the 
social order is governed by a hierarchy evolved on the basis of ritual purity. 
The constituent elements of this social order are the categories (identified 
by means of their varna, or symbolic "colour") attributed with the three 
fundamental functions of Indo- Aryan society from the time of its origins. 
The Brahmins, or priests, have the colour white; the Kshatriya or princes and 
noble warriors are designated with the colour red; the vaishya or the people 
(farmers and traders) are symbolically yellow. These three categories (called 
varna arya or "noble colours"), found in all the different populations that 
speak Indo-European languages, then became four, with the addition of the 
shudra, given the symbolic colour black and representing the mass of non- 
nobles (varna an-arya) referred to by the generic name of dasa ("servants"). 

The Laws of Manu entrust the dasa with the task of "serving" the three 
noble categories also called dvija (which means regenerated or born twice, 
as their official entrance into society occurs through a rite of initiation that 
marks a second birth, conferring them with a further positive quality). The 
different groups of people and, in the broadest sense, the different forms of 
existence acquired at birth within the varna, are called jati (a word derived 
from the Sanskrit root jan, meaning "to generate", a term that incorporates 
functional and hereditary caste aspects). The actual word "caste" is a 
Portuguese translation of the term jati, which missionaries rendered with 
a term that meant "pure" in their language. 27 The first three varnas, those 
of the dvijas, at least theoretically constitute an equal number of jati whose 
internal subdivisions are usually regarded as subcastes or upajatis, and 

27 The word jat, which shares the root of the Latin words gens and genus, indicates a 
concept akin to the English word "kind" and suggests a range of meanings similar to 
those expressed by the words family, ancestry, lineage, kinship, rank and race. 

50 Feeding the City 

differ amongst themselves in accordance with family, type of employment, 
or origin, while a huge number of jatis converge in the shudra varnas, 
distinguished mainly on the basis of employment or service rendered to 
the dominant caste. 28 

Critical interpretations of Hindu ideology and the caste system tend to 
fall into two different, but in some respects complementary, approaches. 
The first, preferred above all by Max Weber, fuses the institutionalisation 
of inequality with the concepts of dharma, samsara and karma. 29 Dharma, 
which is "moral order", is the ethical imperative that urges the individual 
to comply with the divine laws of conduct associated with each caste. 
If the person performs this task adequately, their karma, or "a present 
action able to influence their rebirth positively or negatively", will be 
positive and after their death will allow their spirit to flow back into the 
samsara, or "the eternal cycle of births and deaths", with the prospect of 
reincarnation in a higher caste. Otherwise, they will be reborn into a lower 
caste or even inferior life forms like animals, plants, etc. The relationship 
that links the various castes is thus arranged to comply with principles of 
complementarity and consequently everyone should be eager to maintain 
a social order that conforms to a moral order (dharma). 30 The second 
approach is that proposed by Louis Dumont, which places the emphasis on 
the concepts of purity and contamination, as well as on the strict separation 
of religion from politics and economics. 31 Priests are afforded a higher 
status, beyond considerations of economic or political power, and the caste 
system should respect compliance of the human sphere with dharma laws, 
therefore contributing to balance and harmony. 

Both approaches have generated extensive criticisms and theoretical 
developments, and debate continues on the ideological, ethical-religious, 
political, economic, social and cultural foundations of the caste system. 32 
Stefano Piano writes that historically the Indian caste system has assumed 
the characteristics of a closed social group, defined almost exclusively 

28 This simplified explanation of the constituent elements of the caste system draws 
broadly from Stefano Piano, "Lo hinduismo II. La prassi religiosa", in Hinduismo, ed. by 
Giovanni Filoramo (Rome: Laterza, 2002), pp. 171-246. 

29 Max Weber, "Economic Ethics of the World Religions: New Perspectives. Part Two. The 
Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism", in The Sociology of Religion, rev. ed. (London: 
Methuen, 1965). 

30 Adrian C. Mayer, Caste and Kinship in Central India (Berkeley: University of California 
Press, 1960). 

31 See Dumont (1966). 

32 See Gupta (1991); see also Khare (2006). 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 51 

by birth. It includes a number of families and is often, but not always, 
associated with employment. It is quite significantly characterised by 
ethnicity and religious or geographical origin and intermarriage. The 
behaviour of its members is influenced by precise dietary and shared 
eating rules. 33 In more general sociological terms, a caste can be defined 
as an ascriptive aggregation by right of birth, rigidly superordinated 
or subordinated to other aggregations of the same type, within a social 
stratification system in which individuals are not permitted any vertical 
mobility. David Mamo writes that this interpretation of castes indicates they 
are distinct social and cultural entities. As such, they tend to create internal 
subcultures as a consequence of the intensity and quality of communication 
within the group, compared to that of the group with others. In fact, 
such communication is fostered and preferred as it is functional to the 
strengthening of a sense of caste identity. 34 

Caste and industrialisation in Bombay 

As discussed in Chapter One, caste, kinship, and rural-urban relations or 
rural connections were fundamental to Bombay's social organisation, so 
much so that some historians and anthropologists have defined Indian 
cities as "an urban landscape composed of rural institutions". 35 It is difficult 
to estimate the exact weight of the caste system either in old Bombay or 
in modern-day Mumbai, because there has been a significant propensity 
to believe that castes are not an appropriate social organisation for an 
industrial urban context. 

Davis Kingsley put forward the hypothesis that, with the rapid increase 
of industrialisation, the caste system would disappear. 36 On the other hand, 
historian Rajnarayan Chandavarkar posited that the current notion of caste 
would be reformulated incrementally to reflect the growing importance of 
cities in Indian society. Morris D. Morris, however, argues that the alleged 
disappearance of castes in the cities is mainly due to the difficulty of 

33 Piano (2002), p. 172. 

34 D. Mamo, "Casta", in Nnovo dizionario di sociologia, ed. by Franco Demarchi, Aldo Ellena, 
Bernardo Cattarinussi (Milan: San Paolo, 1987), pp. 336^0. 

35 Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies 
and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 
1994), p. 219. 

36 Kingsley Davis, Tire Population of India and Pakistan (Princeton: Princeton University, 
1951), p. 176. 

52 Feeding the City 

finding reliable historical sources to document their existence, and that the 
role of caste dynamics in Bombay's early industrial labour market has been 
underplayed. 37 Some scholars have also suggested that caste dynamics 
exist mainly within the private social sphere and are actually disappearing 
from the public world. 

Bombay's industrial and social history has shown, instead, that it 
has two contexts: one public and one private. They are always closely 
interconnected and interdependent because the social organisation of urban 
workplaces is linked to neighbourhood and family relationships, as well as 
regional origins. 38 There is little data on the caste composition of Bombay 
workers, but according to a 1940s survey commissioned by the Bombay Mill 
Owners Association (BMOA), which referred to the workforce in nineteen 
factories, most seemed to be Marathas and Kunbi Hindus (approximately 
51.8%); Bhayas make up 13.8%; Untouchables accounted for 11.9% and the 
remaining 5.2% were Muslims. 39 

The difficulty in defining a worker caste profile lies in the fact that 
factory register entries are generic, and indicate only religion, jati and 
place of origin; moreover they lack uniform and mutually exclusive 
criteria. 40 The survey mentioned by Morris noted a relatively low 
percentage of Untouchables, but that seems to have grown subsequently. 41 
It is likely that during the launch of the first cotton mills there were few 
Untouchables in the city since other workers were reluctant to be in the 
vicinity of Dalits. A document issued by a United Spinning and Weaving 
Mills manager in 1874 prohibited Untouchables from working in these 
factories. In the early twentieth century, the number of Untouchables 
rose significantly and stabilised in the 1920s and 1930s, during industrial 
strikes. The Dalits' greater vulnerability meant they could be blackmailed 
and were often recruited as strike-breakers. During the 1929 general 
strike, for example, the prominent political Dalit leader Ambedkar 
strove to provide the workforce needed to continue cotton production. 42 
Ambedkar became an icon of the Dalit struggle for emancipation and 

37 Morris D. Morris, "The Emergence of an Industrial Labour Force in India", in Social 
Stratification, ed. by Dipankar Gupta (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991), 
pp. 231-47 (p. 240). 

38 For further information, see also David West Rudner, Caste and Capitalism in Colonial 
India: The Nattukottai Chettiars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). 

39 Morris (1991), p. 240. 

40 Chandavarkar (1994), p. 220. 

41 Morris (1991), p. 245. 

42 Ibid. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 53 

he used this to consolidate the presence of the Untouchables in the 
industrial workforce, convinced that this might help to reinforce their 
political capacity and social position. 

Importantly, the urban context has partly changed the caste concept 
by breaking down distinctions based on intermarriage, eating habits, and 
shared linguistic, regional or religious traits. Bombay's biggest caste, the 
Marathas, is actually deemed to be the expression of broader caste units, 
allied to improve their chances on the city's labour market. 43 Uniting in 
associations governed by the most influential members, the so-called 
dadas, u these groups of people of disparate caste origin are nonetheless 
able to identify with a wider Maratha denomination. These multi-caste 
conglomerates often organised whip-rounds to raise funds, and set up 
a subscription system to ensure welfare and job mediation services for 
their affiliates. 45 Maharashtra society, which is characterised by a certain 
linguistic and cultural homogeneity that probably facilitated this process, 
saw numerous jati farmers join the Maratha caste. Through these new 
affiliations, Rajnarayan Chandavarkar suggests that "caste identities came 
to be expressed in caste associations which could operate throughout 
the city". 46 Although they could all be traced back to the same Maratha 
designation, these "caste associations" allow their members to express 
their experience of the city on the basis of the various affiliations that made 
most sense: the village of origin: a shared language (dialect), the district 
of residence in Bombay, level of education, etc. All of these are transversal 
affiliations connected to the person's past that allow them to transcend 
their jati or upajati origins. 

The NMTBSCT has all the features of these caste associations. In 
addition to the prominence given by the internal hierarchies to the Maratha 
identity and its most important icons (starting with Chattrapati Shivaji), 
there were also the common rural origins of many affiliates and a shared 

43 See Chandavarkar (1994). 

44 Dada literally means "grandfather" in Hindi but is used in a colloquial manner to 
indicate the older siblings or figures from a criminal subculture. "Dada culture" has a 
long tradition in Bombay's industrial history as a popular model of authority and power. 
Dadas often come from humble backgrounds and thanks to strategic relationships can 
become leaders of associations and bands, and middlemen for finding work. The term 
dada in this context indicates the exercising of political power that evokes the virile 
image of a man able to trigger actions in his social context. See Hansen (2001), p. 72. 

45 See Chandavarkar (1994). 

46 Ibid., p. 234. 

54 Feeding the City 

language base. Gangaram Talekar, the NMTBSCT secretary, describes the 
dabbawala affiliation: 

I'm from the Pune district and I came to Mumbai to do tiffin work. The 
name of my village is Rajgurunagar and it's near Pune. We're from there 
[...] Rajgurunagar, Ambegaon, Maval, Munshi, Akola, Sangamner. All of 
us dabbawalas come from there and we've been doing this work for a few 
years. I'm the third generation of tiffin workers: at the beginning my father 
did it, and his brother-in-law worked with him. Then in 1956 I started too. 
My family and Medge's worked together, the two families are like one 
family. We're very close... like brothers. 47 We're all one family [points to a 
boy who works as a dabbawala] and it's as if he was the son of an uncle or 
brother. That's how it is with dabbawalas, everyone is related to someone 

One thing that seems to reinforce the association's identity matrix (although 
it should be put into the context of a relational mode that is common and 
widespread throughout India, and which is part of a consolidated code of 
conduct) is the habit of calling their colleagues with nicknames that refer 
to the family, and which are assigned according to the age of the person in 
question. Dabbawalas will call an older person dada (paternal grandfather) or 
kaka (younger paternal uncle, in other words the father's younger brother). 
Peers may call each other bhai, bhau, bhaiya or "brother". One of four female 
dabbawalas in the association is called mami or "aunt" (mother's brother's 
wife). Medge explains: 

There are also women dabbawalas who do light work. For example, if the 
husband is ill, the woman goes to work in the fields. If someone is injured, is 
in hospital, isn't feeling well, the woman has to help out. Women are given 
light tasks in the work group. Take Lakshmibai: she works in the Santacruz 
station and lives in Kandivali. We dabbawalas call her 'mami'. We often 
call each other with the names of family members... dada, bhai, bhau. For 
instance, in his group Choudhary is known as Mukadam, Dada Mukadam, 
Choudhary Mukadam. As happens in a family. 

Just as labour recruitment in Bombay's large cotton mills during the first 
decades of the twentieth century occurred through complex interwoven 
links among castes, family, and neighbourhood, today's channelling of 

47 Psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar believes that the bond between brothers is the basis of 
the extended Indian family. In the ideal extended family, the brothers remain together 
after marriage, bringing their wives into the family circle. The concept of brotherhood 
includes fraternal loyalty, which resounds in the economic, social and ritual facets of the 
extended group. See Sudhir Kakar and Katharina Kakar, The Indians: Portrait of a People 
(New Delhi: Penguin, 2007), p. 9. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 55 

the labour force in Mumbai's tertiary economy occurs in the same way, 
especially in contexts where informal economy is prevalent. If the caste 
associations, of which the NMTBSCT is an example, have been able to act 
as engines of empowerment for their members, enhancing their contractual 
position (and, of course, that of the associations themselves), it is largely 
due to the strong symbolic and affective intensity of the relationships 
among their members. 

The key to the transmission and promotion of these interdependencies 
has always been the family, which continues to act as a mediator between 
the private and the public spheres, even in the metropolis. On one hand, 
the family maintains its significance as the matrix for organising migration 
plans, marriages between the same jatis, or professional careers. On the 
other, it stands as a relationship model in an urban context of social 
relations shaped by supra-urban and supra-national economic, social and 
political forces. The metropolitan arena is a place where various caste 
associations live in close contact and never achieve cultural equality, but 
simply create a dense fabric of transversal relations that find their identity 
in the interrelation within these associations. 

The question of the dabbawala "caste" 

Our caste is Maratha, from Maharashtra. It's Hindu. Shivaji was a Maratha 

— Raghunath Medge 

In this composite cultural and social order, the dabbawalas see themselves as 
a "Maratha caste", part of the Kshatriya varna of warriors and fighters. As 
already seen, however, most of the dabbawalas originate from the western 
part of the state of Maharashtra, from small rural villages. Although they 
are not so far away from the city, their areas of origin have a completely 
different landscape to that of the city, dominated by cultivated fields 
and hills covered with sparse bushes. The economy of the home villages 
is predominantly agricultural and most work derives from this sector: 
agriculture and dairy farming, with a modest amount of secondary 
businesses. Medge says: "My wife and my daughter live in Mumbai, my 
mum lives in the village of Vajori in Rajgurunagar, which is in the Pune 
district, so she can tend the fields. There's also my uncle, who was my 
father's brother, and his son. Those who are able to work can also live in 
Bombay, while those who can't work stay in the village". 

56 Feeding the City 

Mukadam, one of the NMTBSCT dabbawalas, explains his family's 
geographical situation: 

I live in Goregaon with my family, with the brothers who live here. Two are 
dabbawalas, one is a BST [local Bombay bus service] bus driver. He used to be 
a dabbawala, but now he drives buses. I have two daughters and a son, but 
my son is seventeen and studies. My other brother and his family stayed in 
the village because there's nobody else to tend the fields, so he's there with 
my mother who is alone since my father died. 

Work in the fields does not ensure a steady income, hence the desire to 
migrate to a big city and guarantee the family additional earnings. Most 
dabbawala families do not move to the city as a group. Family members stay 
in the village, where they continue to farm small plots of land that they 
own or rent. This migration from the countryside to the city developed 
with the same dynamics described by cumulative causation theories of 
contemporary migrations, particularly "chain migration". 48 Sporadic 
chances to cope with the increased family risks which arise from the effects 
that metropolitan development triggers on the outskirts will gradually 
consolidate into a chain migration phenomena facilitated by strengthened 
family networks and shared geographical origin. The consolidation of 
migratory movements contributes to the stabilisation of flows because 
the families of the migrants eventually enjoy an enhanced income and 
elevation of their social status. Conversely, the families of those who 
cannot or will not emigrate are the victims of increasing relative poverty. 49 
In the case of the Mumbai dabbawalas the existence of a migration chain 
with a considerable history has actually helped build a culture of migration 
into urban areas with unique features— for instance, the conservation of 
an ethic founded in rural virtues combined with the encouragement 

48 In reference to the analytical prospects summed up in the so-called new economic 
theory of migration, see Douglas S. Massey, Joaquin Arango, Graeme Hugo, Ali 
Kouaouci, Adela Pellegrino and J. Edward Taylor, Worlds in Motion: Understanding 
hiternational Migration at the End of the Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 
1998). By "chain migration" I mean the migratory phenomena in which both strong 
and weak social bonds play a key role in perpetuating a migratory flow from a specific 
area of origin to one (or more) target areas, ensuring a certain stability to these flows 
even over many generations. 

49 "Relative poverty" or "relative deprivation" is a concept introduced in economics by 
Oded Stark (see Massey et al, 1998) to explain the many spates of emigration. For Stark, 
it is above all the tension between low (and slow-growing) incomes and high (fast- 
growing) incomes that generates and nurtures the migratory tendency. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 57 

of new migration from villages around Pune towards the metropolis. 
One NMTBSCT dabbawala describes his employment history and patterns 
of migration: 

I've been a dabbawala for 25 or 30 years. I come from the village and before I 
was a dabbawala I worked in a paper factory there: Auto Plane Paper. I also 
worked in the fields: I've done everything. But there wasn't enough to live 
on, so I came here. Sometimes there's rain in the village, sometimes there's 
none, and sometimes there's too much. That's how farm work is. But I'm not 
the only one— lots of people from my village have left the fields and gone 
to do other work. At home now there are one or two men for the fields. The 
others all do other work. There's no money. What can we do? We go to the 
city to do other work. I like working in the fields but you can't fill a whole 
family's stomachs with it. It's a bad business but it's the same for everyone. 

Another tells a similar story, in which his family's income is at the mercy 
of unpredictable farming conditions and increasingly stretched resources: 

I have two sons. One is studying and he's just finished class twelve. He's 
working in a clothing store at the moment. The other one works in an 
airline ticket office. When I retire, I'm going back to the village. There's 
no pension here so you have to work to get the money you need for the 
future. The association doesn't give you anything. You just work while 
you can and then you go back to the village. There's no support. Back at 
the village I've a home and fields. The reason we're here is because we 
don't get rain on time now. Before the fields gave crops, but not anymore. 
The new generation has increased. A village used to have two men, now 
there are two hundred, but the fields haven't increased, they're still the 
same. Land ownership doesn't increase: the population grows but an acre 
of land is just an acre of land. A man has two sons, two sons have four 
sons, then they have to move away to work, otherwise who would leave 
their villages and their ways! Now, if you're working in an office, they tell 
you 'You have to dress this way!', but our tiffin work is not like that. Our 
customs are the same as back in the village. We work in the same way. 
That's why I like it. 

The heavy exploitation of the territory, including excessive deforestation 
in recent years, has significantly deteriorated the conditions of agricultural 
work. Drought and torrential rain have eroded arable land, rendering 
it infertile and difficult to work. All this has contributed to increasing 
emigration towards Mumbai. 

A number of testimonies indicate that some dabbawalas identify 
themselves with the Kunbi jati, a caste found in Pune who work the 
land (Kunbis and Marathas are closely approximated, and in the 1931 

58 Feeding the City 

census they were classified as one category). 50 There is a possibility that 
before enlisting in Shivaji's army the ancestors of the dabbawalas were 
Vaishya varna and that at the time the term "Maratha" was simply an 
ethno-linguistic designation identifying Marathi-speaking people. It seems 
that the intense relationship between Shivaji and the Varkari movement 
allowed the Kunbis to join its ranks and undertake a "varna leap". In this 
way, they were admitted to the Vaishya varna, and this was when the term 
Maratha began referring to a caste. 51 Thus, the term Maratha identified first 
the people recruited as warriors and then became an explicit caste indicator, 
subsequently reproduced and reinforced through intermarriage. Medge 

We dabbawalas are farmers from the same rural area and we're all part of 
Varkari Sampradaya. We have great consideration of God and the sadhus. 
We're illiterate, we don't know how to read and write, so we're not able to 
do office work. We don't speak English and we have to learn Hindi when 
we get to Bombay. We have to study it because it's our national language, so 
we can communicate with customers. In our Sampradaya we consider food 
to be like a divinity, we wear God's garland. Serving human beings, serving 
is like rendering service to God, like meeting God. Sampradaya people are 
all vegetarian and we even take food to young children, to primary and 
secondary schools, because their parents work in offices and they order 
food for their children from the dabbawalas. "Hindu Kshatriya"— Shivaji is 
a soldier! To do hard work, you have to be Kshatriya. In our Sampradaya 
we revere sadhus deeply, so that our work goes well. Customer satisfaction, 
good service, are what a Varkari Sampradaya offers. You need a Kshatriya 
for hard work. 

This brief review of how the Maratha caste developed is just the tip 
of the iceberg: it is in no way a complete picture of dabbazvala caste 
organisation, because some workers have different origins from the 
Pune area. It is significant, however, that most of the dabbawalas come 
from the same territorial and cultural backgrounds as did most of 
the Bombay cotton mill workers, which facilitated the development 
and success of their delivery service. In the same way as other caste 
associations, the dabbawalas have built their business on the basis of 

50 I am indebted to Ms Gauri Pathak who conducted research into Mumbai dabbazvala 
management (Gauri Pathak, personal correspondence). For a complete description of 
Kunbi habits and customs, refer to Robert Vane Russell, The Tribes and Castes of the Central 
Provinces of India, 4 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1916; repr. New Delhi: Asian Educational 
Services, 1993). 

51 Ibid. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 59 

existing linguistic, regional and caste ties, using these common factors 
as a resource that would generate capital. In Mumbai today, those who 
are collectively known and recognised as "Marathas" cannot actually 
be traced precisely to a specific jati. The reason is the gradual erosion 
of the kinship system organised according to the traditional tenets of 
intermarriage and shared eating habits that underpin the caste concept, 
following increased rural migration to the city. 

Historically, caste identity was reinforced by conflict and antagonism 
between Brahmins and Kshatriyas in nineteenth- and twentieth- century 
public Hindu debates. Brahmins were progressively seen as educated but 
arrogant, and came to be represented as an effeminate, decadent expression 
of urban culture. In this way they were a total contrast to the basic Maratha 
Kshatriya varna values of warfare, rural virtues (honesty, frugality, humility, 
decorum, etc), devotion to the Bhakti movement and emphasis on a 
regional, suburban background. 52 In Mumbai the significance of belonging 
to a caste increased insofar as it gave access to overlapping networks. 
These networks were made acceptable and expendable because of shared 
ideals of rural virtues, economic opportunities, local alliances, and group 
affinities that emerge on each occasion thanks to common interests and 
migration processes. 33 

52 Hansen (2001), pp. 30-31. 

53 Ibid. I would, however, point out that if it is true that the caste system informs and 
organises Indian society, it is equally true that independent India was established as 
a democratic, socialist and secular state. The fundamental principles of the Indian 
constitution guarantee the equality of all citizens before the law (art. 14); prohibition 
of all forms of discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, race, sex and place of birth 
(art. 15); the right to freedom of worship (art. 25); the right to receive an education 
in one's own language, writing and culture (art. 29), the promotion of social mobility 
for disadvantaged castes (art. 16-17). This policy, with appropriate adjustments, has 
been applied by all state governments in the Union of India, which enjoy a certain 
degree of legislative autonomy with respect to the inclusion of some groups in the list 
of disadvantaged social categories that may take advantage of specific social promotion 
policies. The Indian government, following the typology of Indian communities that 
had been developed by the British colonizers, classified the most disadvantaged social 
categories in three groups. The first was called the "Scheduled Castes" and included all 
the communities of so-called "untouchables", who now define themselves as "Dalits" 
("downtrodden") in modern India; the second, called the "Scheduled Tribes", included 
Adivasi (aboriginal) communities, i.e. non-Hindu populations living in the forests and 
mountains of the country's remotest areas; the third groups was called "Other Backward 
Classes" or simply "Backward Classes" and included many castes that were part of 
the Shudra, nomads and tribes traditionally known as brigands. See the Constitution 
of India: [accessed 
29 June 2012]. 

60 Feeding the City 

Gastrosemantic aspects 

Food as a cosmic principle 

Dabbawalas consider their work as performing puja. I'm very devout: I have 
a lot of faith in God. Serving food [the speaker used the Sanskrit word anna] 
is a very important thing. The fact is, if you don't bring the food on time, if 
the dabba is late for lunchtime, it's a sad moment for the person who doesn't 
get the food they're waiting for. When it's lunchtime, the customer will be 
hungry. So our job is to deliver the dabba and if you arrive at lunchtime, the 
customer is satisfied; they get their food and they're happy. That's the work, 
you deliver food to others, so it's good work. 

-Director at the NMTBSTC 

The NMTBSCT meal delivery service is founded on the unique role 
that food plays in Indian culture. The concept of "gastrosemantics" is 
used to define this value that, according to Indian anthropologist 
Ravindra S. Khare, indicates "a culture's distinct capacity to signify, 
experience, systematise, philosophise, and communicate with food and 
food practices by pressing appropriate linguistic and cultural devices". 54 
Khare's definition points to the pivotal role played by food in India, 
and is useful for delineating the ritual practices, social behaviour and 
theological speculations linked to it. Food in India expresses a multitude 
of classifications — from satisfying daily biological needs to defining social 
and family relationships, economic transactions, hierarchical boundaries, 
and ethical and legal systems. 55 Food may be approximated to linguistics, 
aesthetics and grammar for its abstract language; on the other hand, it 
is a tangible, physical, material substance. This turns it into a cluster of 
moral meanings and expressions that reflect the needs of the body and its 
aspiration to spiritual liberation. 56 

This section does not claim to give a detailed picture of all the different 
meanings that food acquires in India and its many different cultures. Rather 
it attempts to define the essence and cultural experience that food evokes 
among Indians. Referring back to the work by Khare, the term Hindu is used 

54 Ravindra S. Khare, "Food with Saints: An Aspect of Hindu Gastrosemantics", in The 
Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists, ed. by Ravindra 
S. Khare (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), pp. 27-52 (p. 44). 

55 Patrick Olivelle, "Food in India", journal of Indian Philosophy, 23 (1995), 367-80. 

56 Ravindra S. Khare, "Introduction", in The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences 
of Hindus and Buddhists, ed. by Ravindra S. Khare (Albany: State University of New York 
Press, 1992), pp. 1-26 (p. 1). 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 61 

to indicate various traditions that share a common historical civilisation 
path, so even talking about "Hindu food" becomes infinitely complicated. 57 
There is no attempt here to standardise the various cultural, ethnic, religious 
and linguistic currents present in India, only the desire to find a common 
denominator. Although Hindus, Buddhists and Jains (to name but a few of 
the many beliefs found in India) share similar food practices, each group 
has its own gastrosemantics: food and the act of eating it are a multiple but 
uniform Hindu "Ultimate Reality"; the Jains are subject to strict austerity 
and denial; Buddhists follow a principle of moderation. 58 

Although it can be asserted that every community in India has different 
food ethics, it is still possible to trace a common origin when investigating 
ancient beliefs and the practices of the various groups speaking Aryan 
languages. The Aryan peoples settled on the northern Indian plain in 
about 1500 BC, arriving from central Asia, and their beliefs spread mostly 
in that part of India. 59 Their food model was based on sheep rearing and 
agriculture, and was underpinned by a philosophical consideration of 
eating. Food was not only a form of subsistence but also a fundamental 
part of the great Aryan cosmic moral circle where those who eat— and the 

57 One needs to bear in mind Michelguglielmo Torri's point that Indian civilisation should 
not be identified with the Hindu religion which, in turn, is not defined by discussion of 
a limited number of texts that thus provide an image of a uniform doctrine. There is a no 
hard, immutable core in the civilisations because they are all subject to ongoing change 
through history and that makes it much more complicated to describe them by the use 
of categories. See Torri (2000), pp. xiv-xv. 

58 For a description of the different food styles, see K. T. Achaya, Indian Food: A Historical 
Companion (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994). 

59 There are several theories about Aryan migration to India of which the most prevalent 
describes a violent foray from Central Asia to the north of India, which might also, as 
Gavin Flood suggests, reflect on the social structure of Europe where this theory was 
developed. I think it should be stressed that, over and above the different interpretations, 
the origin of the Aryans has become important for ideological reasons, both in India 
and in Europe. In the latter, the "invention" of an Aryan race was the basis of Nazi 
racist ideology; in India, the Hindu nationalist movement recently embraced the 
autochthonous origin theory to state that the only real inhabitants of India are the 
descendants of the ancient Aryans, who professed the Hindu religion. Then there are 
lay groups and the Marxist Left who identify with the migration from Central Asia so 
they can say that India has been characterised by the presence of many ethnic groups 
since time immemorial. For an introduction to Aryan migration, see Flood (1996); and 
Leon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalistic Ideas in Europe 
(New York: Basic Books, 1974); and especially Torri (2000). For the Indian thoughts on the 
theme, see Romila Thapar, "The Theory of Aryan Race and India: History and Politics", 
Social Scientist, 24 (1996), 3-29. For the relationship between Aryan civilisation and food, 
see K. T. Achaya, "In India: civilta pre-ariana and ariana" in Storia e geografia dell'alimentazione, 
ed. by Massimo Montanari and Francoise Sabban, 2 vols. (Turin: Utet, 2006), pp. 144-52. 

62 Feeding the City 

food they eat— must be in harmony with the Universe. The food ingested, 
in relation to this harmony, gives rise to three major transformations: faeces, 
meat and manas or thought, which is the most precious transformation. 60 In 
Sylvain Levi's opinion, Aryan or Vedic culture was characterised by a strong 
element of violence generated by the frequent use of meat in individual 
sustenance. Levi defines the culture as "brutal" and "materialistic", and its 
most becoming expression was in the leitmotif of the food and the eaters. 61 
Wendy Doniger has suggested that the nutritional chain describes the 
order of the species: "what might appear as a culinary metaphor was really 
meant as a descriptive account of the natural and social world as organised 
in a hierarchically ordered food chain". 62 In other words, each species eats 
in proportion to its strength: from big to small, from strong to weak. The 
linear sequence described delimits a social space, which is reflected in 
natural space and in ritual sacrifice, whose expression renews the scale of 
values. Vedic norms were overturned with the spread of the figure of the 
renouncer in about the sixth century BC, and were conveyed by religious 
currents within the Hindus, like the Bhakti, who placed emphasis on 
service and love. 

Great spiritual masters like Buddha and Mahavira (the highest 
authority of Jainism) promoted a purely vegetarian diet in the fifth 
century BC. 63 Vegetarianism (as well as non-violence), now considered to 
be the utmost expression of spirituality, was a revolution in Indian society 
because abstaining from consumption of meat became synonymous with 
purity and the marker of a true reversal of social values. 64 The new diet 

60 K. T. Achaya, A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 
1998); and Achaya (1994). 

61 Sylvain Levi, La Doctrine du sacrifice dans les Brahmanas (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1898). 
For complete comments on the subject, see Brian K. Smith, "Eaters, Food and Social 
Hierarchy in Ancient India: A Dietary Guide to a Revolution of Values", Journal of the 
American Academy of Religion, 58 (1990), 177-206. 

62 Wendy Doniger (ed.), The Laws ofManu (London: Penguin, 1991). 

63 See Achaya (2006). 

64 Ahimsa is one of the Jain religion's fundamental principles and has become one of the 
essential rules of pan-Indian thought. The principle is respected by Jain monks and 
includes strict rules about food: they cannot eat after sunset, when a living organism 
could be swallowed in the darkness; they cannot cook food, they only accept it from 
devotees of the faith, and only leftovers, not food cooked specifically for them. To 
prepare for asceticism the monks perform different fasts, which may be the progressive 
limitation of some foods, the exclusion of certain foods (apart from those already 
normally prohibited: meat, honey, some vegetables, unripe fruit, alcohol), or even a 
complete rejection of any kind of nourishment to the point of suicide by starvation. See 
Carlo Delia Casa, II Gianismo (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1993). 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sumpradaya 63 

was not only an expression of a different cuisine, but a new cultural 
model and worldview. 65 Paradoxically, however, the vegetarian choice 
promoted by Jains and Buddhists strengthened open discrimination 
against the Aboriginal peoples who lived by hunting and gathering. 
Through an act of political opportunism they were relegated to the 
margins of society, deemed as impure and classified as Untouchables of 
the Dalit caste. 

Sanskrit literature also addresses considerations regarding food and 
sees the placid, generous cow as the quintessential symbol of restraint in 
the consumption of meat. 66 Athraveda, for example, emphasises how the 
cow should be sacrificed only if sterile. The Brahmins and subsequent 
Upanishads raise doubts as to the use of ritual sacrifices with animal 
victims. 67 The new spiritual orientation maps out the production and 
circulation of food applying cosmic logic. The Upanishads affirm that food 
is a manifestation of Brahma, the Ultimate Reality, and that it influences a 
Hindu's interior life to the point of controlling development from one birth 
to another. For this reason there are multiple food classification charts to 
establish appropriate roles for nutrition practices. It is essential to specify 
the contexts, conditions, and quality of the food to be consumed or avoided, 

65 Indian states, with the exception of the states of Bengal, Kerala, Nagaland and Meghalaya, 
have integrated their laws with the principles of vegetarian ethics. Article 48 of India's 
Constitution prohibits the slaughter of cows, calves and other milk or draught cattle. 
Article 48 in its entirety states: "Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry. The State 
shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific 
lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and 
prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves, and other milk and draught cattle" . See the 
Constitution of India, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India (2011), available 
at [accessed 29 June 2012]. 

66 In addition to religious explanations, there are also demographic considerations that 
have given rise to different interpretations of the prohibition of eating cow flesh. These 
include the demographic growth of Vedic society in 1800-800 BC, leading to a reduction 
of meat consumption per capita and a trend for a diet consisting of cereals, vegetables, 
and dairy products. See Massimo Livi Bacci, Popolazione e alimentazione. Saggio sidla storia 
demografica europea (Bologna: II Mulino, 1993). Also, according to Marvin Harris, cows 
in India had core tasks in the entire agricultural cycle: they drew the plough to turn the 
heavy Ganges plain earth, so it was therefore preferable to use them for agricultural 
work and not as a source of nutrition. See Marvin Harris, Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and 
Culture (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 1985). 

67 Today, Hindus still worship cows and bulls as deities: in Hindu mythology Shiva rides 
the bull Nandi, and Krishna, protector of children and avatar of Vishnu, is represented 
as a cattle herder. This has become a key element of Hindu identity, especially in the 
thinking of the Indian right-wing, to the point of discrediting historical sources and the 
works of the Sanskrit scholars who documented livestock sacrifice as both a ritual and a 
source of livelihood. 

64 Feeding the City 

because the inner state of the being in this world and beyond is intimately 
connected to what a person eats. 68 This is dharma, the cosmic moral order 
that regulates food availability for all creatures and at the same time is also 
expressed through complex social distinctions and rituals. 69 This "talking 
food", to use Khare's phrase, 70 culminates in the production of a non- 
dichotomised bond between the creator, the body, and the "I", evolving 
from a need rooted in materiality into an expression of the person's interior 
life: from generative commodity to cosmic ideal. 

This complex universe is seen in the daily lives of people at home and 
at work, in various ways, since ethical and religious principles are still very 
much alive in earthly life. In the pragmatic social dimension there is constant 
interaction between the human and the divine, and it is not limited to the 
places set aside for worship. 71 Gavin Flood makes an interesting distinction 
between public and soteriological religion: if the latter addresses the 
individual and their salvation, the former is "the regulation of communities, 
the ritual structuring of a person's passage through life and the successful 
transition, at death, to another world" and "concerned with legitimising 
hierarchical social relationships and propitiating deities". 72 For the devotee, 
food is a comprehensive, delicate language marked by a broad spectrum of 
cosmic, social, karmic, spiritual and emotional messages: a language that 
speaks both through the choice of ingredients and beyond the boundaries 
of materiality. 

Food-related holy practices 

Eaten or even just handled, food is known to have a dual action. First, it 
provides biological support for the body's vital processes; secondly, it acts 
to achieve experiences of "a more subtle nature" because it allows for the 
amplification of spiritual perceptions by linking belly, mind and soul. 73 
Foods, especially those considered "good" or "pure", allow humans to 
renew primeval harmony among all nature's creatures. The act of eating 

68 Khare (1996). 

69 Doniger (1991). 

70 Khare (1996), p. 18. 

71 Pier Giorgio Solinas, "Soggetti estesi e relazioni multiple. Questioni di antropologia 
indianista", Societa Degli Individui, 25 (2006), available at http://www.antropologica.'in-dividuo.pdf [accessed 29 June 2012], DOI: 10.1400/65102 

72 Flood (1996), pp. 13-16. See also Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History 
from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo (New York: Routledge, 1988). 

73 Mario Bacchiega, II pasto sacro (Padova: Cidema, 1971), p. 137. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 65 

actually implies the destruction of a being and awareness of this violence, 
directly linked to death. This means that the act in itself is problematic, 
especially with regard to the consumption of meat, which requires the 
eater to perform a purification ritual to expiate the guilt linked to violence 
and restore the bond that has been broken by the killing. In turn, the ritual 
legitimises the eternal nutrition cycle sequence. 

Moreover, Nature— perceived as a deity— suffers predatory human 
actions: agriculture and the gathering of wild berries are part of an 
exploitation system that causes humanity to seek a justification for its 
acts. This occurs through rituals celebrating the perpetuation of life by a 
sacrifice that appears in different forms and may involve people, animals, 
nature and divinities. The sacrifice generates a pact between living beings, 
linking them in an ongoing sequence of life and death. The banquet, which 
everyone attends although in different ways (there are those who eat and 
those who are eaten), becomes the privileged channel for achieving an 
inner opening towards the hallowed and greater communion with the 
divine. Notions underlying the classification of foods thus assume primary 
importance, since the level of purity brings spiritual elevation of different 
intensities. This classification differs depending on the various cultures 
that developed in India. 

The spiritual rules connected to nutrition are extensively articulated in 
the practice of Ayurveda, a term of Sanskrit origin meaning knowledge of 
life, composed of the word ayus (life) and veda (knowledge). 74 Ayurvedic 
medicine does not separate the health of the body from that of the mind 
and aims to restore the balance among all the components that reflect 
an individual's health: care of organs, psyche and soul; and even the 
relationship the person has with the environment, relations with the 
family and with the world at large. For a healthy person, the purpose 
of Ayurvedic science is to pursue and achieve four objectives in their 

• dharma (achieving wellness through decorous living, including 
respect for justice and morality); 

• artha (achieving a good standard of living, while respecting the 
rules of dharma); 

74 The main sources of Ayurveda are the Caraka Samhita (Caraka Collection) describing the 
legend of the origins of Ayurveda and the Snsruta Samhita (Susruta Collection), which 
is especially important for surgery. See Isabella Miavaldi, La cucina ayurvedica (Milan: 
Xenia, 1999). 

66 Feeding the City 

• kama (the satisfaction of worldly desires, passion and love); and 

• moksha (attainment of salvation and liberation from the cycle of birth 
and death acquired through consciousness of the existence of God). 75 

These objectives allow equilibrium to be found both for the inner self and 
with the environment, or better still, a balance between the macrocosm 
and the microcosm (the body), the latter reflected in the former. Disease 
is thought to be the result of a breach of this balance and Ayurveda, as a 
therapeutic science, recommends proper nutrition and yoga as supports to 
maintaining good health through inner peace, transcending the senses and 
releasing the bonds with matter. 76 

Human well-being relies on food and its digestion because the body 
grows and develops depending on how it is fed. Ayurveda places ample 
attention on food quality, properties of raw materials, and the processing 
triggered by agni, the body's digestive fire. Foods, like everything existing 
in nature, have three qualities or gunas: sattvic (pure), rajasic (overexcited) 
and tamasic (rotten). Sattvic or pure foods are the best for eating correctly 
and they include fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, cereals, natural sweeteners, 
mother's milk, butter, ghee, cold pressed oil and shoots. The Bhagavad 
Gita states that "those foods that enhance life, purity, strength, health, joy 
and happiness, which are tasty and oily, nutritious and pleasing, are dear 
to sattvic people" (XVII, 8). Only moderate use should be made of rajasic 
foods, which often have a spicy taste and include fermented foods, garlic, 
cheese, sugar, salt, coffee, chocolate, and very strong spices and herbs. The 
Bhagavad Gita also states that "bitter, acidic, salty, overly hot, pungent, dry 
or spicy foods are preferred by rajasic persons and generate pain, distress 
and sickness" (XVII, 9). Finally there is tamasic: damaged or improperly 
cooked foods, such as fried and frozen foods, and those treated with 
preservatives or microwaved. Tamasic foods also include mushrooms, meat, 
fish, onions, garlic and substances like alcohol and tobacco, all of which 
should be avoided. 77 The Bhagavad Gita reads: "the tamasic will prefer food 
that is tasteless and rotten, which is unclean waste" (XVII, 10). 

75 Ibid., pp. 12-13. 

76 There is an extensive bibliography on the birth and evolution of yoga. For instance: 
Mircea Eliade, Yoga, Immortality and Freedom (London: Routledge, 1958); by the same 
author Techniques du Yoga (Paris: Gallimard, 1948). 

77 Miavaldi (1999), p. 38; and Amadea Morningstar and Urmila Desai, The Ayurvedic 
Cookbook (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994). See also Dominik Wujastyk (ed.), The 
Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from Sanskrit Medical Writings (London: Penguin, 2003). 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 67 

It is also important to appraise the taste of foods, namely their rasa, 
because different flavour nuances have different effects on the human 
body and, not least of all, on the mood of those who consume them. 78 
Ayurveda recommends taking care of the body by eating regularly and 
taking daily exercise. It is important to wake up early, to thank the Lord, 
empty the bowels so as to start a new day without the debris of the day 
before. Equally it is necessary to clean all parts of the body properly, with 
particular attention to the "nine gates". The body is seen as a temple with 
nine entrances to the outside world: eyes (netra), nose (neti), ears (karna), 
mouth (mansuya), vagina (yoni), penis (lingam), anus (mula), navel (nabi) and 
the top of the head (brahmarandra). Massage and meditation are integral to 
this care as these practices help ward off negative moods so as to avoid 
anger, envy, greed, jealousy and harming oneself and others. 79 

What seem to be just rules for proper nutrition and lifestyle actually 
have a close bearing on the sphere of the sacred. Food is anna, the first 
Sanskrit word to designate a Brahmin. Everything in the universe is food 
and interior growth depends on the ability to eat and digest the food that 
is our lives. 80 In particular, the choice of foods to combine tends to avoid 
the juxtaposition of principles that lack equilibrium and so would lead to 
inner disharmony if consumed. 81 Those who want to keep good karma will 
avoid combining animal food (obtained by the act of violence intrinsic to 
slaughter) with vegetables (a spontaneous gift of nature). 82 The rule of 
food harmony tries to achieve an inner balance intended to come close to 
the harmony of the universe. So, the purer the food is, the more the body 
acquires its characteristics, enhancing spiritual elevation. This is because 
foods are not a simple matter: they are a vehicle of subtle information, 
energies, manifestations of the primordial vibrating energy called Prana. 83 
Thus, when people eat, they take the Prana contained in the food and 

78 Rasa literally means "lymph" or "edible juice". 

79 Gabriella Cella Al-Chamali, Ayurveda e salute. Come curarsi con Vantica medicina Indiana 
(Milan: Sonzogno, 1994). 

80 David Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda: Self-Healing and Self-Realisation (Delhi: Motilal 
Banarsidass, 2000). 

81 Bacchiega (1971), p. 143. 

82 This hypothesis seems universal within food rules imposed by different religions. In 
Judaism, Deuteronomy (Chapter XIV), there is the famous rule that prohibits cooking 
the kid in its mother's milk, so forbids combining the violence of slaughtered meat with 
the mild, pure and gentle gift or milk. 

83 Deborah Pavanello, Cibo per Vanima. II significato delle prescrizioni alimentari nella grandi 
religioni (Rome: Mediterranee, 2006). 

68 Feeding the City 

circulate it around the body through seven energy centres called chakras 
(specifically: muladhara, swadhisthana, manipura, anahaia, visshuddhi, ajna and 
sahasrara), which govern various functions and organs. When Prana enters a 
chakra through food, organs come into contact with it and it takes a specific 
name, becoming apana at the level of the first chakra, controlling excreta; at 
the second chakra it is viana, which regulates blood circulation; as samana at 
the third chakra it regulates the digestive process; prana (without a capital) 
at the level of the heart chakra, controls the respiratory process; lastly there 
is the fifth chakra, udana, which controls the diaphragm. 84 

Action (or non-action) that arises from the fermentation of pure foods 
within the human belly is thought to bring vital thought processes closer 
to the cosmos and to the divine. In this way, foods become mediators that 
can absorb and convey the subtle energies that connect human beings. 
As mediators they permit the transfer and the "initiatory succession" of 
energies that offer the eater the possibility of being grafted, the Vedas 
say, into "cosmic light". Consequently, the meal is a rite, a moment of 
exploration, of learning, but also of intense rapport with the other, the 
Absolute, an act that allows their "realisation in existing and in strength". 85 
But there is no dichotomy between what is eaten and the eater because, as 
Mario Bacchiega says, "everything has been eaten" and "the eater and the 
eaten are the same thing [...] really there is neither eaten nor eater". 86 The 
extraordinary mystical chant: "I am food, I am food, I who am food, I eat 
the eater of the food!" expresses the overcoming of the tension between 
knowledge and love in the symbol of food, because here human and divine 
action need each other. In this cosmic metabolism, profound unity is 
achieved: eat the other and be food for the other. 87 

Food is not only limited to the sphere of the sacred, however: it has an 
aesthetic, popular aspect that reflects daily life. Indians generally do not 
possess an in-depth knowledge of all expressions and characteristics that food 
plays in the culture and spirituality of India, but they internalise the guidelines 
of nutrition (including the beliefs, functions and traditions related to it) from 
the families in which they are raised. Often this is represented by the daily 
rapport that women have with the handling of food and with children. So even 

84 Ibid., pp. 127-28. 

85 Bacchiega (1971), p. 270. 

86 Ibid., p. 271. 

87 Raimundo Panikkar, The Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari (New Delhi: Sanctum, 1977), 
pp. 306-07. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 69 

if haute cuisine in traditional patriarchal society is the expression of a public 
and ritual act and the domain of male Brahmins, it is usually the woman 
who is the leading player in cooking and preparing meals. 88 

Food in women's everyday lives 

Any discussion involving food must take into account the role of women in 
the preparation of meals and the close bond between women and the act of 
cooking. Indian women today enjoy a wide scope of action, but traditionally 
their place has always been in the home, particularly in the kitchen, where 
the family shrine was, and still is, placed. The kitchen is the heart of the 
Hindu home, which is kept as far as possible from sources of contamination 
such as sleeping quarters or the room where visitors are received. Before 
entering the kitchen, the cook must clean herself of any contamination that 
may come from the outside and change clothes, because the purpose of the 
food preparation process is not only to produce foods that keep the body 
alive, but to merge the cultural properties of the food transformed by the 
cooking process itself with those of the people who eat it. 89 

The woman plays a vital role in cooking for the family and providing 
food for the gods. This act requires knowledge of the preferences of the 
deities and those preferences, with relevant recipes, are handed down from 
mother to daughter. Usually, however, the offering to the gods, called prasad, 
includes rice boiled in milk, small cakes, a stick of incense and a garland of 
flowers. After the god has been fed, the leftovers are redistributed among 
family members. As mentioned previously, the cow, and cattle in general, 
have a crucial importance in the Hindu religion and in Indian culture. 
Women are often privileged custodians who wash cows and decorate them 
for religious ceremonies and festivals. Fresh cow's milk is used to wash 
the statues in family temples, while dry dung is used as fuel for cooking 
(especially in the villages) and to clean the floors of the house and the 
kitchen. The kitchen floor is used as a table to be set before sitting down 
for meals. It is always the women who bring the meal to their families and 
while serving they "give". Even in modern times, women-especially the 

88 See Kirti Narayan Chaudhuri, Asia before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian 
Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); and 
Charles Malamoud, Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India (Delhi: Oxford 
University Press, 1996). 

89 See Achaya (1994). 

70 Feeding the City 

older generation-in the villages do not eat with the family, but only after 
everyone else has finished. 

Cooking is not limited to the scope of the food but expresses a wider 
range of meanings: a woman's inner heat (a force known as shakti) is said to 
be ten times higher than that of a man. David Smith writes "it is this force 
that enables them to give birth, to as it were cook the foetus in the same way 
as they cook the food that maintains the life of the family they have given 
birth to. The husband is born again in the son that originates from his wife's 
womb. Husband and children are all given life and physical sustenance by 
the wife". 90 The birth of a child, in particular a son, confirms the woman 
in her role within the family and through generational continuity she 
saves her husband from the condition of being a man without descendants. 
The son will ensure nourishment to his father's spirit after his death. The 
woman also renews the act of cooking in every act of sexual intercourse 
because through her heat she "cooks" the male member. 

This symbolism, related to women's bodies, is not immune to the pure/ 
impure distinction that regulates certain times. 91 During the menstrual 
cycle, for example, women— especially of the higher castes — do not cook 
or enter the temple. 92 The mother's preference for pure foods ensures her 
offspring remain healthy in line with the dietary requirements laid down 
by dharma. Those individuals who are fed pure foods (mainly vegetables) 
are reborn in a high social status; conversely, those who have eaten animal 
flesh or pursued less discriminating eating habits, will be reborn in a lower 
varna. 93 

This is in no way an exhaustive description of the relationship between 
the female body and cooking in the broadest sense, but it is useful for 
understanding the context in which women once operated, and still 
do, although they now enjoy a freedom that releases them from some 
traditional domestic constraints, especially if they live in large cities and 

90 David Smith, Hinduism and Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p. 110. 

91 A clarification is required here of the terms "pure" and "impure". These are not 
necessarily used as moral judgements: Indians believe that they refer to a physical 
condition. Impurity is represented by nature and its manifestations, which may lead to 
contamination and must be limited in order to prevent infection or disease. It is clear that 
this dichotomy also leads to social hierarchical distinctions that define the relationships 
between the castes, whereby upper castes maintain their purity by avoiding contact with 
impurities, which are passed on to lower castes. 

92 See Smith (2003). 

93 Mario Piantelli, "Lo hinduismo. I. Testi e dottrine", in Hinduismo, ed. by Giovanni 
Filoramo (Rome: Laterza, 2002), p. 90. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 71 

are relatively wealthy. These constraints do, however, fall upon the work 
of women of more humble extraction, who perform domestic services in 
middle-class houses (from cleaning to managing the kitchen). Sociologist 
Barbara Ehrenreich and anthropologist Arlie Russell Hochschild have 
shown how, in the battle for equality and the right to self-determination, 
feminism often hides a form of exploitation carried out by richer, perhaps 
career-oriented women, towards less-educated or poorer women. Rather 
than men taking on traditional female tasks as more women head to the 
workplace, domestic duties are offloaded onto other women. 94 

The caste hierarchy of food 

Food transactions are not only relevant in gender differences; McKim 
Marriott believes that they could be a primary device for explaining caste 
organisation. 95 The food reflects caste differences through a series of rules 
with which diners must comply scrupulously to avoid contacts that could 
render both the food and people who are eating impure. Written rules list 
the different types of impurities (for example, the moment of birth and 
death, or the performance of certain manual tasks that involve contact with 
unclean elements), but generally the act of eating is a far more vulnerable 
time than others and should be approached with great care. Food rules 
that affect ordinary meal consumption presume an attention to ingredients 
(vegetable foods are preferable to animal products); to cooking (preferring 
food fried in ghee or clarified butter to boiling); place (the eating place 
should be as far away as possible from possible sources of contamination); 
cookware (preferring the use of copper or aluminium pans to terracotta 
because they can be washed with greater ease and do not accumulate 
residues in porous cavities). Every gesture during the meal must be 
controlled to avoid making the food inedible. For example, vicinity to lower 
caste individuals should be avoided, as should the presence of animals or 
contact with human saliva. Despite being produced by the body, saliva 
is regarded as "alien" to it because it is a vehicle of potentially harmful 

94 Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex 
Workers in the Neiv Economy (London: Granta, 2003). See also Henrike Donner, Domestic 
Goddesses: Maternity, Globalization and Middle-class Identity in Contemporary India (London: 
Ashgate, 2008). 

95 McKim Marriott, "Caste Ranking and Food Transactions: A Matrix Analysis", in Structure 
and Change in Indian Society, ed. by Milton Singer and Bernard S. Cohn (Chicago: Aldine, 
1968), pp. 133-72. 

72 Feeding the City 

substances, even though it is also synonymous with deep acceptance and 
belonging to the family group. 

By tradition, and especially in the first phase of the marriage, a wife eats 
her husband's and in-laws' leftovers so as to be integrated into the family. 
A parent may consume their child's leftovers. Sharing a meal is a family 
action, because the family eats "from the same hearth". 96 If a member 
breaks a caste rule (for example, by offending a family member), they will 
not be accepted at family lunches and reintegration is symbolised by a 
party in which the offended person offers food to the offending person. 
This gesture allows all other members to reintegrate the offender into the 
eating circle. 97 

The rules are stricter for the high castes, in particular for the Brahmins, and 
impose a series of precautions that do not leave much room for individual 
freedom. 98 For Brahmins in particular, a vegetarian diet is strictly necessary 
to maintain caste purity and foods should always be placed safely in sealed 
containers to avoid being contaminated by an outsider's impure hands. 
This code of conduct was already noted in the eleventh century by the Arab 
intellectual Al-Biruni. He describes relations between Hindus and Muslims: 

all their fanaticism is directed against those who do not belong to 
them— against all foreigners. They call them mleccha, i.e. impure, and forbid 
having any connection with them, by intermarriage or by any other kind of 
relationship, or by sitting, eating and drinking with them, because thereby, 
they think they would be polluted. They consider as impure anything that 
touches the fire and the water of a foreigner; and no household can exist 
without these two elements. Besides, they never desire that a thing which 
once has been polluted should be purified and thus recovered [...]." 

The excerpt highlights how the concept of purity was an element of 
identification by foreign observers. Food preparation and habits were 
signals that revealed caste hierarchy and Hindu culture more broadly. 

A 1970s study led by Stanley Freed in Shanti Nagar, a village in 
northern India, showed how the caste hierarchy was based on an 
asymmetric exchange of food and water. Caste classification is apparent 

96 Lawrence A. Babb, "The Food of the Gods in Chhattisgarh: Some Structural Features of 
Hindu Ritual", Southwestern journal of Anthropology , 26 (1970), 287-304 (p. 297). 

97 Ibid. 

98 Dumont (1996). 

99 Al-Biruni, Alberuni's India: An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, 
Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws, and Astrology of India about AD. 1030, trans, by 
E.C. Sachau (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1992), vol. I, p. 25. My quote is from 
Smith (2003), p. 73. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 73 

in understanding from whom food can and cannot be accepted. 
The giver is in a hierarchically superior position to the receiver. The 
asymmetry of the exchange makes use of cooking techniques. For 
example a pakka food, cooked in clarified butter, can be taken by 
members of higher castes; conversely a kaccha food cannot. 100 Kaccha 
and pakka mean literally "raw" and "cooked" but the derived sense 
has a very extensive application and indicates, on one hand, insecurity 
and imperfection, and on the other soundness and perfection 
(a notion that contains a hierarchical nuance). The distinction between 
these two stages is achieved by the use of ghee. In Brahmanic India, 
sacrificial food is counterpoised to non-sacrificial food, and the former 
is always cooked, pakka, protected and sanctified by the ghee used for 
frying it. Pakka food is less exposed to contamination while kaccha food is 
more fragile and corruptible. 

Modern meaning intends both as cooked food but using different 
techniques: Kaccha foods are cooked in water while pakka food is 
essentially fried in ghee and prepared to be consumed outside the 
home. The cooking sequence is critical in designating one or other type 
of food. The same principle can be found for water, which retains its 
purity when kept in a brass jug and can be accepted by members of 
higher castes when offered by members of lower castes; when it comes 
from earthenware jugs this is not possible. 101 Food thus becomes the 
expression of a refined taxonomy, functional in a classification of the 
universe that reflects natural elements and social orders consistent with 
the construction of a collective sense. Chaos is opposed by a system of 
linkages between nature and society, abstractions or cultures, in which 
humans and worldly objects belong to each other according to a logic of 
obedience to certain criteria. 102 

Food and the metropolis 

In recent years there have been significant transformations in food culture. 
In the big cities and in diasporic contexts, the caste system softens into 

100 Malamoud (1996); Achaya (1994). 

101 Stanley A. Freed, "Caste Ranking and the Exchange of Food and Water in a North Indian 
Village", Anthropological Quarterly, 43 (1970), 1-13. 

102 Brian K. Smith, Classifying the Universe: The Ancient India Varna System and the Origins of 
Caste (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949). 

74 Feeding the City 

a more fluid stratification where surviving inequalities and differences 
are based on property, power and prestige. Food also reflects these 
transformations and, indeed, the current scenario of a metropolis like 
Mumbai is characterised by a public space dominated by an impressive 
variety of food, including restaurants that serve any type of food and street 
vendors offering cheap lunches from their stalls, to eat while standing. 103 
The food sold reflects Mumbai's cultural habits and traditions, for instance 
distinguishing between "hot" and "cold" food, depending on the season 
it is offered. The distinction does not refer to the temperature of the food 
or its spiciness, but to the effects the foods have on the body. During the 
main festivities the dishes offered by street vendors are appropriate to the 
circumstances and are a good alternative to eating lunch out. Vendors often 
use ghee instead of water to make food pakka (safer). According to Mina 
Thakur's research on street food in the city of Guwahati, many customers 
seek Brahmin vendors to be sure they are buying unpolluted food, or they 
look for vendors of their own caste offering traditional dishes. 104 

In Mumbai, the debate about the regulation of street vendors can get 
very heated. A recent investigation by Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria noted 
complaints from city associations about vendors selling street food. These 
vendors are seen as the symbol of a metropolitan space that escapes the 
control of the authorities and of the flow of migrants arriving in Mumbai. 
Often the protests are based on two main elements— language and religion 
— that reflect the offer of non- vegetarian foods from non- Hindu sellers. In 
deciding who can sell food on Mumbai territory, the city pursues a nativist 
policy and distinguishes foods that may or may not be cooked on public 
land. 105 Often the younger generation call this "junk food", using a common 
English expression that denotes readily available, cheap food of poor quality. 
It refers to what students eat for lunch at street stalls, like bara pav (a type 

103 Frank F. Cordon, "Dining Out in Bombay/Mumbai: An Exploration of an Indian City's 
Public Culture", in Urban Studies, ed. by Sujata Patel and Kushal Deb (New Delhi: Oxford 
University Press, 2006), pp. 390-413; and Rashmi Uday Singh, Times Food Guide Mumbai 
2007 (New Delhi: The Times of India, 2007). 

104 The notion of "safe" and "unpolluted" food is obviously to be taken to mean parameters 
other than those of hygiene and cleanliness. I refer to the rules aimed at preserving 
caste purity which see the Brahmin caste at the top of the social hierarchy. This position 
allows them to cook food for all other castes. Irene Tinker, Street Foods: Urban Food and 
Employment in Developing Countries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 179. 

105 Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria, "Street Hawkers and Public Space in Mumbai", Economic and 
Political Weekly, 27 May 2006, pp. 2140-46. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 75 

of bun, cut in half and stuffed with a red or green chilli sauce, potatoes and 
spices), or pav bhaji (a sandwich accompanied by a mixture of vegetables). 

The diversified food on offer reflects the demands of a city where new 
social classes are stratifying and seeking a variety of choices that were 
unknown a few years ago. Mumbai has undergone a transformation 
in recent years that entails the growing presence of middle-class people 
used to eating out in the evening. It is a relatively recent phenomenon, for 
previously only people with a relatively low income were in the habit of 
eating outside their homes. The indoor restaurant, different from street food 
vendors, reflects and promotes a series of changes in public and private 
contemporary Indian life induced by increased wages and the entry of 
middle-class women into the working world. These changes were followed 
by new experiences of conviviality and socialisation, with the consequent 
modification to spaces, places, and relationships inside the kitchen. 

While there are increasing numbers of trendy new restaurants around 
the city (with many Italian newcomers), multicultural food is not a recent 
phenomenon in India. There has been a continuous rotation of renewed 
migratory waves that bring disparate influences to the city's flavours: there 
is a mix of large colonial Bombay hotels used by the British; the already 
mentioned khanawals; Irani cafes, an important Bombay institution now 
facing extinction; Western or European- inspired restaurants; and dhabas 
(eateries offering traditional food). These venues offer cuisine typical of 
the various regions of northern India: Kashmiri; Punjabi; Pahari; Marwari; 
Rajastani; Lucknawi. 

Although regional differences are countless, a typical lunch includes 
chappati, paratha or poori (unleavened bread), rice, meat, creamy dhal (lentils), 
meat cooked in ghee or a typical tandoor, kebabs, seasonal vegetables with 
yogurt, paneer (cottage cheese cooked with green vegetables or onions), fresh 
chillies and fresh tomatoes. Desserts are made of milk, paneer, legume flour 
and white wheat flour cooked with dry walnuts. Lunch is accompanied 
by drinks like nimbu pani (lemonade) and lassi (iced yoghurt, sometimes 
flavoured). Also available are southern Indian dishes from Karnataka, 
Andhra, Hyderabad, Tamil, Chettinad and Kerala. These cuisines are 
rice-based (long, short, or round grains) or are simply eaten with lentils 
cooked to make uttapam, idli and dosa. Sauces typical of southern India are 
made from tamarind, coconut, peanuts and dhal. The food is served on a 
vazhaillai, a freshly-cut banana leaf. A curious fact related to this "tray" is 
that the shape of each leaf can be used to identify the food of different 

76 Feeding the City 

communities, a sort of ID card; the arrangement of the food on the leaf also 
indicates the place of origin. 

Mumbaites eat many dishes from nearby Gujarat, a mostly vegetarian 
diet, which was also widely influenced by Chinese cuisine because of the 
intense trade that the main port of Surat has always enjoyed with China. 
There are also typical Maharashtra dishes with their extensive use of fish, 
and Goan cuisine with its Portuguese influences. Today, however, these 
are only general categories of catering establishments and the choice of 
food seems endless. A short stroll in any part of the city will reveal how 
public space is dominated by the presence of food vendors and places 
to stop even just for a drink. For example, the middle classes, young 
students, or professionals from the film world frequent the Barista chain, 
which offers snacks and coffee in a comfortable setting for chatting or 
talking business. There are also restaurants serving multi-menus and 
offering different traditional dishes, or fusions of various food styles 
known as world cuisine, or kosher Indian, Parsi and "continental" food. 
Big shopping centres, mainly on the outskirts of the city, have popular 
food courts offering different types of fare: Punjabi and Udupi; vegetarian 
and non-vegetarian; Italian ice cream parlours; pizzas; or Chinese and 
Thai food. 

Despite this proliferation of offerings, the constant growth of the 
dabbawala association nonetheless shows that the cosmopolitan side of 
the city has not homogenised the sensory category of taste. If anything, it 
has been enhanced seamlessly with the history of the city, which is able 
to absorb foreign elements by transforming them through a process of 
domestication. In this way, Mumbai reflects a multifaceted flexibility and 
through constant negotiation there is not only a commercial ferment that 
expresses its nature, but also a broader principle of hope for the multitude 
of people who live there. This multidimensional coexistence is described 
by Medge: 

Indian people who have the qualifications work in banks, post offices, the 
railways, aeronautics, are college professors or teachers. Geographically, 
Bombay is similar to a straight line 72-75 kilometres long. The cost of living 
in Bombay is high and you cannot live close to offices and places of business. 
So you go to Bombay to work and live far away. So trains make it easy to 
move around, local trains. Because of the traffic we use the train and you can 
get from Virar to Churchgate in an hour. Travelling by train gets you there 
quicker. There's a local train every three minutes— it may be a fast or a slow 
train, but you can't get on without trains. Today, Mumbai is home to people 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 77 

of all castes— Marathi, Muslim, Parsee, Christian, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marvari, 
foreigners, people coming from South and North India. They all have very 
different cuisines. If you work in an office at Nariman Point, then you want 
to choose your own food. Italians eat one way, Indians in another, just 
like Konkanis, Malvanis, Kuneris, Kolapuris, Solapuris, vegetarians, non- 
vegetarians, Gujaratis, Punjabis [...] everybody chooses different dishes. 
Each restaurant can prepare only one type of food. There are so many types 
of restaurants. Then everyone is accustomed to home food. When you're at 
home there's a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, to cook with their own 
hands, everyone is accustomed to that food and they don't like restaurant 
food. If people eat the same food, they lose their tempers. If you work for ten 
or twenty years, you're the person who brings home the wages, the family 
prepares the food you like with different spices, without oil or with plenty 
of oil, whatever way you like, and youll be served. Because eating well, 
keeps your mind alert and then it will work just fine, you'll earn well. You 
will live longer. In Bombay there's so much pollution that everyone's used to 
home-cooked food but the trains are so busy you can't bring that food with 
you. That's when you order tiffin. 

The dabbawalas and the food delivery system 

Today the debate on food in India is split around demand (in a country 
where access to food resources is still deeply marked by social inequality); 
the right to food for all; and — conversely— the symbolic value associated 
with caste membership. 106 In relation to demand, one of India's most 
representative voices, the scientist and intellectual Vandana Shiva, 
suggests that a plan is under way to use food as a weapon against India 
and, in general, against developing countries, by subtracting resources like 
biodiversity and water to local communities. This happens, according to 
Shiva, through the imposition of rules and laws like the agreement on TRIPS 
(Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights) and the General Agreement 
on Trade, both reached within the World Trade Organisation. The 
liberalisation of seeds imposed by the World Bank has, for example, allowed 
multinational companies like Monsanto and Cargill to penetrate the Indian 
market, buying up the sector's biggest enterprises and persuading farmers 
to buy very costly fertilisers and hybridised seeds. Nevertheless, this did 

106 For a full discussion of the concept of "food for all", see lean Dreze and Amartya 
Sen, Hunger and Public Action (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989). The debate 
revolves around several key concepts: food sovereignty; food safety; and the right to 
food. In-depth references can be found on the websites of the FAO or of several NGOs 
involved in international cooperation projects. 

78 Feeding the City 

not give the desired results, particularly as far as cotton was concerned, 
and led to suicide and fatal starvation for many peasants in debt due to the 
high cost of seed. Shiva believes that low-productivity monocultures and 
monopolies symbolise the "masculinisation" of agriculture and, together 
with the patriarchal globalisation project, lead to an increase in violence 
against women and minority groups. It is a policy of exclusion that bases 
its legitimacy on the ownership of living beings and plants, conflicting 
with the shared knowledge promoted by an agriculture based on diversity, 
decentralisation and ecological methods. 107 

In relation to the symbolic value of food, a recent study undertaken of 
Udupi vegetarian restaurants, typical of southern India but also widely 
present in Mumbai, shows how caste-system food prohibitions were present 
in the city until a few years ago, and it is presumed that the situation still 
largely continues. Until the 1940s, some "Udupi hotels" had three different 
entrances: one for orthodox Brahmins, one for liberal Brahmins, and one 
for non-Brahmins. Today this specification is prohibited by law but can still 
be found in the owner's surname. 108 

An interview with a cook who works in the kitchens preparing lunches 
delivered by dabbawalas revealed that customer demands are not just about 
ingredients in the dishes, but also about the rules laid down by the ancient 
Ayurveda science and spiritual concepts linked to food. The cook is Punjabi 
but has lived in Mumbai for many years, and after a lifetime spent with her 
husband (the owner of a small dyeing plant), she decided to work preparing 
meals. She talked about the attention to healthy eating and home-style 
cooking (home food) that complies with customer requests for food without, 
for example, garlic, too many spices or oil. There are no special requirements 
dictated by caste, but through the choice of ingredients it is possible to 
reconstruct not only taste trends, but also regional origins and spiritual 
beliefs of the customer. 109 Despite the diversity of culinary techniques and 

107 Vandana Shiva, India Divided: Diversity and Democracy Under Attack (New York: Seven 
Stories Press, 2005). By the same author: Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit 
(Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2004); Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and 
Peace (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005). 

108 See Vegard Iversen and P. S. Raghavendra, "What the Signboard Hides: Food, Caste and 
Employability in Small South Indian Eating Places", Contributions to Indian Sociology, 40 
(2006), 311-41 DOI: 10.1177/006996670604000302; and U. B. Rajalakshmi, Udupi Cuisine 
(Bangalore: Prism, 2000). 

109 For the sake of completeness, I include part of the interview: "My customers ask for food 
without garlic, that's not too spicy and oily. They're health-conscious people. If anyone 
has special problems, like they suffer from diabetes, I'm careful with the ingredients 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 79 

connected recipes, the cook outlined a number of elements that are found all 
over the country: 

• Aroma: the cook must pay attention to the specific characteristics 
and fragrances of the ingredients. The senses should all be involved 
in eating. It is thought that aroma allows digestion to begin before 
the food is consumed. 

• Colour: Indian cuisine requires presentation to be a joy for the eyes, 
with golden lentils, white rice, green vegetables, red condiment, 
orange meat and spices. 

• Flavour: Indian cuisine follows the philosophy of using six flavours 
in the combination of a complete dish: sweet, bitter, salty, acidic, 
astringent and sour. Taste is thought to be crucial in preventing 
disease and in regulating bodily functions. 

• Diversity: there are many different recipe versions. Until a few 
years ago there were no written cookbooks and the majority of food 
culture was passed down orally. Every housewife then modified 
the recipes she had learned to her liking and depending on the 
availability of ingredients, which brought continuous change. 

• Structure: the composition of dishes must bring out each food's own 
characteristics, harmonising the combination of various recipes in 
a fine balance. The structure is found in thali, a typical meal served 
on a large flat silver or aluminium plate, which includes rice, 
vegetables, dhal, sauces, yogurt, meat or fish (for non-vegetarians), 
roti (a kind of flatbread) and desserts. 

From an anthropological standpoint, the main concern is not with caste 
system-related prohibitions as such, but with what they stand for. As Mary 
Douglas has suggested, the idea of pollution serves both an instrumental and 
an expressive purpose. Its instrumental purpose usually translates into an 
attempt to limit individual behaviour through a set of rules. Yet when their 
expressive purpose is considered, the same proscriptions appear to be "used 
as analogies for expressing a general view of the social order". 110 As food 

even though it's difficult to cook separately just for one person. If someone doesn't want 
potatoes, I cook a mix of vegetables, but my food is very simple, home food. As the 
customer's mother or wife were cooking. I'm originally from the Punjab: my mother and 
aunts taught me to cook. I do those same dishes for my customers". 
110 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: 
Routledge, 1970), p. 4. 

80 Feeding the City 

taboos emphasise cultural differences and reinforce inter-group boundaries, 
they impose a specific social order. Such norms, derived from clearly defined 
notions of what is pure and what is impure, will only have significance within 
the systemic framework they help to enforce. 111 While specific ideas of pure 
and impure take hold as codified norms to prevent contamination, they also 
give shape to the cognitive system people are taught to rely on in order to 
recognise and differentiate each other 7 s social identity in a shared environment. 

Therefore, the symbolic boundaries enforced by food rules do not simply 
instrumentally distinguish what is edible from what is not, but they also 
expressively depict a whole hierarchy of social relations, marking out the 
range of structured kinship bonds, separating ethnic groups and highlighting 
religious affiliations. The resulting mix of cuisines and ingredients thus 
maps out a complex "food system" of different eating patterns that mirrors a 
composite community's daily reproduction of its own social order. Needless 
to say, in Mumbai this is a very dynamic system that does allow variations, 
albeit within a recognised, well-entrenched organisational structure. 112 

Within the context of this food system's deeper, expressive symbolism, 
the Mumbai dabbawalas' food delivery organisation can be viewed as 
a vehicle of purity within what a Marathi poet refers to as the city's 
"putrid culture", a culture of unavoidable confusion and promiscuity, 
and a challenge to any conceit of purity preservation. 113 Yet in a city as 
diverse, shape-shifting, at once life-giving and soul-tainting as Mumbai, 
food delivery services make it possible to preserve bonds of affection 
and family roles as one's spouse, parents or relatives prepare their out- 
of-home family member's meals at home. Moreover, the dabbawala system 
enables individuals and their families to uphold nutritional choices that, 
in terms both of ingredients and taste, adhere to the requirements and 
norms they most cherish, whether caste-related, status-driven, or in other 
ways dictated by social, religious or cultural custom. As an added bonus, 
the system allows its users to avert the risk of ingesting polluted and poor 
quality food while away from home. 

111 Ibid., p. 35. 

112 The theoretical reference is described in Mary Douglas, Implicit Meanings (London: 
Routledge, 1975). 

113 The Marathi poem Mumbai by Narayan Surne (translated into English by Mangesh 
Kulkarni, Jatin Wangle and Abhay Sardesai) is taken from Sujata Patel and Alice 
Thoner (eds.), Bombay Mosaic of Modern Culture (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 
1995), p. 147. The verse referring explicitly to Mumbai as a rotten culture is on p. 148, as 
follows: "We move on again, / settle in another vacant lot; / And live out the legacy / of 
this putrid culture". 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 81 

The dabbawalas' customers can therefore safeguard their own food 
diversity, as they are not restricted to the limited choice of food available 
at affordable prices near their place of work, and at the same time they 
can preserve their own notions of food purity. Although the food they get 
delivered to them by the dabbawalas may fail to meet caste requirements in 
full, it usually does comply with most ethnic requisites, at least in the terms 
of ethnicity demarcation explained by Michael M. J. Fischer: "ethnicity is a 
process of inter- reference between two or more cultural traditions, and [...] 
these dynamics of intercultural knowledge provide reservoirs for renewing 
humane values. Ethnic memory is thus, or ought to be, future, not past, 
oriented". 114 

A Mumbai-style interpretation of Claude Levi- Strauss' s 
culinary triangle 

When Claude Levi-Strauss proposed his famous "culinary triangle" 
—borrowing his approach from Jakobson's concept of the "vowel triangle" 
as a basic semantic field offsetting universal principles of human linguistics 
—he explored the opposition of "elaborated" versus "unelaborated" food. 115 
He set out to explain how a similar contrast among basic categories could 
serve as a model for the development of food preparation, cooking being, 
like language, a truly universal marker of humanity. He proposed to contrast 
the categories of "raw", "cooked" ("roasted/boiled") and "rotten" food as 
basic semantic markers of the complex interactions that transform raw food 
into cooked food (an essentially "cultural" process) and into rotten food (an 
apparently "natural" process) . A further difference is drawn between roasting 
and boiling, which entails using a cultural object (a receptacle) to transform 
the food: "in as much as culture is therefore conceived as a mediation of the 
relations between man and the world, and boiling demands a mediation (by 
water) of the relation between food and fire which is absent in roasting". 
As "cooking effects [...] a mediation between [...] the burnt world and the 

114 Michael M. J. Fischer, "Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory", in Writing 
Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography , ed. by James Clifford and George 
E. Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 194-233 (p. 201). 

115 Claude Levi-Strauss, L'Origine des manieres de table (Paris: Plon, 1968). The Jakobson's 
concept is explained in A. Duranti, Antropologia del linguaggio (Rome: Meltemi, 2000); 
Levi-Strauss' s appraisal of his theory is briefly described in Claude Levi-Strauss, "The 
Culinary Triangle", in Tood and Culture: A Reader, ed. by Carole Counihan and Penny Van 
Esterik (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 36-43 (pp. 36-37). 

82 Feeding the City 

rotten world", it can be viewed as a metaphor of cultural development. 116 
Stretching this metaphor a bit, we can represent the dabbawalas as mediators 
between the strong undertow of a "rotten" city— one where ever shifting 
patterns of human interaction among individuals and groups with different 
backgrounds and often conflicting agendas constantly produce change even 
beyond the subjects' own reckoning— and the desire to somehow keep 
things under control. As agents of cultural "elaboration", enabling customers 
both to preserve culinary traditions and to facilitate their transformation, the 
dabbawalas inhabit the highly charged space between the culinary triangle 
polarities of the "raw" and the "rotten". 

Figure 6. The culinary triangle, Mumbai style. From Sara Roncaglia, Nutrire 
la citta (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2010), p. 148. By kind permission 
of Bruno Mondadori. 

In the Mumbai-style culinary triangle, new customers of the dabbawala 
system can be symbolically portrayed as being still "raw" to the city, i.e. 
untainted, unelaborated, yet ready to start their trajectories of cultural 

116 Levi-Strauss (1968), p. 426; Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (1997), pp. 36-37. 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 83 

transformation. The dabbawala association inhabits the category of 
the "cooked", as they process customers' requests and transform their 
home-cooked food in a cultural expression of the city itself, thanks to 
the managerial skills and spiritual beliefs that uphold their tradition of 
service. The city of Bombay-Mumbai as breeding ground for "natural", 
unwarranted transformation of any culinary tradition that enters its 
premises may well be portrayed as the "rotten" pole. The city's many 
different souls absorb and develop cultural processes that the metropolis 
slowly makes its own, re-shaping and perpetuating human knowledge as 
cultures blend and feed off each other in this fertile "rotten" soil. 

As a semantic system of oppositions, says Levi-Strauss, the culinary 
triangle may serve "as a formal framework to express other oppositions, 
either cosmological or sociological". 117 In an ethnographic context, it can 
be usefully employed to clarify the transformations that take place at a 
social and cultural level. The dabbawala organisation has been built upon its 
members' devotion to the principles of Varkari Sampradaya, and upon a 
code of conduct that has been laid out according to their founder's intention 
to make their work the embodiment of those principles. Shaping their work 
into a form of spiritual practice, they turn a service economy into a more 
complex, almost alchemic process, one that infuses business transactions 
with new and deeper meanings. Just as cooking turns raw food into 
'socialised" food, so does the dabbawalas' work enhance the sociability of 
the city's inhabitants' eating practices, as their home-cooked food is often 
eaten among strangers. 

If we take into account the spiritual sphere of Indian food, a parallel 
can also be drawn between the culinary triangle's three categories and the 
three qualities of food according to the Ayurvedic tradition. Thus, "raw" 
can be matched with the pure, sattvic food, while "cooked" can be linked to 
rajasic, "rotten" to tamasic food. The longing for sattvic purity that prompts 
at least some Mumbai customers to choose home-cooked, safe and "holy" 
food over the (mostly) tamasic food on offer in the city, can be satisfied by 
the purveyors of the dabba from the home to the workplace, performing 
a task that can ultimately lead to subtle adaptations in food preparation, 
gradually changing sattvic sensibilities into a willingness to adapt and 
experiment with the rajasic. 

117 Ibid., p. 479. 

84 Feeding the City 

This is how the dabbawalas can become middlemen capable of transporting 
'cooked" food to "raw" customers in a city that has a "natural" penchant for 
accelerating transformation thanks to its mixture of cultures and lifestyles: 
it is in this sense only that we can portray the process as a progressive 
'decay of purity". The importance given to the local "food code", 118 and 
to how it defines rasa, or "taste", in interpreting Mumbai, is grounded in 
the way this code appears to be dominating all others in defining social 
and personal identities, and— more generally— in outlining the human 
condition in a given social environment. Human beings experience social 
relations, place and space through cognition, based on the way they organise 
sensory perceptions. 119 This sensory input is processed within each culture 
in a specific way: as David Le Breton writes, "faced with the multitude of 
sensations possible at any time, any society establishes its own selection 
criteria". 120 To be part of a specific society also means acquiring a particular 
way of enjoying it. Though it proceeds from a common physiology and 
shared biological needs, the way a community codifies its perceptions 
and tastes results in a specific form of social organisation that provides 
guidance and structure to people's conceits and purposes. 121 

The appreciation for the Mumbaite food code's wide range of expression, 
with its thick cultural, religious and ethnic implications, is key to the 
dabbawala enterprise's enduring success. Beyond the diverse roles that 
food plays in the urban context and the vast variety of available choices, 
the popularity of their delivery service indicates that eating home-cooked 
food— i.e. eating "familiar" food— is a way to comply with rituals. Even in 
the city's context of unceasing and extensive transformation, the dabbawalas 
make it possible to sanctify every meal, preserving a body of knowledge that 
people are loath to lose. It is not just a matter of compliance with traditional 
and religious norms, but rather of upholding beliefs and understandings 
concerning food that transcends hedonistic considerations. Indeed, the 
dabbawalas concur in structuring a social order capable of accommodating 
the coexistence of different communities that, while living in close contact 
with each other, retain distinctive corpora of myths and rituals. 

118 I use the term to translate code alimentaire and code gustatif, according to the definition 
that Levi-Strauss gives in Le cru et le cui (Paris: Plon, 1964), p. 265. 

119 David Le Breton, La Saveur du monde: une anthropologic des sens (Paris: Editions Metailie, 
2006), p. xiv. 

120 Ibid. 

121 Ibid.; and Paul Stoller, The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology 
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992). 

2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition Varkari Sampradaya 85 

The intricate clockwork by which Mumbai society perpetuates itself in 
daily life is mirrored by the way the dabbawala delivery system incorporates 
the urbanised population immigrant experience. 122 The complex 
architecture of spirituality, service ethics, respectful preservation of food 
requirements (and therefore of the food's ingredients, as well as of the 
ways in which food is prepared and processed), and— above all— the social 
ties subsumed in the preparation and consumption of meals all contribute 
to this metropolitan immigrant society's symbolic sphere. 

The dabbawala experience can thus also serve as a lens to focus our 
understanding of the deep emotional and spiritual dimensions that 
contribute to the city's cosmology, one that can be shared by all souls that 
have chosen to live in it. A subtle alchemy of tastes that is also capable 
of interacting in surprisingly vibrant ways with the stimuli provided 
by a global economy of which the city of Mumbai is itself the offspring. 
As a case study, the dabbawala system shows how a form of specialised, 
culturally-embedded service economy, can empower itself by accessing 
the wealth of history and tradition of its territory, and can subsequently 
develop a strong competitive advantage. 123 The dabbawalas achieve this 
commercial success without betraying the heterogeneity of their own 
cultural roots. Indeed, they succeed by making the intricate mixtures not a 
factor of chaos but a dynamic form of order. 124 

122 I specifically refer to Abdelmalek Sayad's reflection on the capacity of the migrant's 
construction of social experience to act as mirror of symbolic structures and required 
practices that characterize the host society, see Abdelmalek Sayad, L' immigration ou le 
paradoxe de I'alterite (Brussels: De Boeck Universite, 1991). 

123 Nicola Bigi, "Quell'atmosfera culturale che rende economicamente speciale una citta" 
(interview with A. J. Scott) in Dialoghi Internazionali 6 (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2007). 

124 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961). 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box 
Suppliers Charity Trust: 
The Shaping of Dabbawala 

After the initial rudimentary cooperative was set up in 1954, the Nutan 
Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust (NMTBSCT) was registered 
with that name in 1984. The name was developed to include all the elements 
that characterise the work of the dabbawalas: the city where tiffin delivery 
is offered; the organisation's specific role as a distribution network; and 
its establishment as a charity trust, reflecting its social commitment to 
sponsoring various non-profit projects. 1 

An executive committee of thirteen permanent members sits at the 
highest level of the NMTBSCT, and it is responsible for defining and 
fine-tuning the overall dabba transport system in Mumbai. A second tier 
consists of about 800 mukadams, who are the group leaders in charge of a 
team of five or ten dabbawalas. The rest of the organisation is made up of 
the dabbawalas themselves, the members of the association. In the words of 
NMTBSCT' s president, Raghunath Medge: 

Ours is an association, a union of 5,000 people. There are many groups in a 
single association and I'm the president of the association representing all 
the Bombay groups. I'm also chairman of my group, so I'm given a salary. 
The association's work is a social commitment, which entitles it to qualify as 
a charity trust. Each station has at least five or six groups. Gangaram Talekar 
is the secretary general and there are nine directors throughout Bombay, 
found in the various areas. Then there are the mukadams, who are the heads 

1 All information contained in this chapter isbased on interviews, personal communications 
and fieldwork undertaken in Mumbai in 2007. For further details of this fieldwork, 
please refer to the Appendix. 

DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0031.03 

88 Feeding the City 

of the working groups, and the 5,000 members, who are not employees but 
partners, members. There is competition among the groups: we compete to 
find new customers, just like anyone else. 











MEMBERS ( 5000 

Figure 7. Diagram by Pawan G. Agrawal, director of Mumbai's Agrawal 
Institute of Management. By kind permission of Raghunath Medge. 

The executive committee 

The executive committee is elected every five years and comprises a 
president, vice-president, secretary general, treasurer and directors. 
Committee members meet every month to discuss any problems related to 
the service and the association's line of operations. Crucially, all the people 
who hold these offices continue to operate as dabbawalas because their 
salary comes from distribution work. Even the president does not draw a 
salary on the basis of his rank but on his dabba delivery line. 

As president, Medge is one of the pillars of the NMTBSCT. He combines 
brilliant communication skills with the ability to transmit a vision of shared 
values. 2 The sense of community in the association derives from the shared 

2 Medge has become a great spokesperson for the dabbawalas. After his first meeting 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 89 

cultural background of the dabbawalas, but also from each dabbawala's 
awareness that he is "part of an important project that generates meaning", 
an awareness reinforced by the executive committee and by the president. 3 
There is a consolidated tradition that Medge has exploited whilst acting as 
president to leverage the dabbawala's conceptual models— i.e. the images and 
figures that influence how a dabbawala interprets the world and consequently 
how he acts— to achieve a mutual objective and working trust amongst 
the members. 4 This does not mean there are no conflicts amongst different 
groups, but these differences always play out within an association working 
for a common purpose. Social interaction between the dabbawalas is encoded 
within a corporate culture that uses a "policy of emotion management" to 
create a shared work ethic and enable socialisation which, especially in a 
migrant context, helps to overcome moments of loneliness by sharing 
holidays, free Sundays, and times of "sorrow and joy". 5 Medge explains: 

Not just anyone can be the president, it has to be a dabbawala. At the moment, 
I have the Vile Parle contract. If I wasn't a dabbawala I couldn't be the president. 
I'm responsible for the whole Bombay group. To be president you have to 
have specific characteristics, you need to know things, you need to know 

with Charles, the Prince of Wales, in Mumbai in 2003, he was invited to the Prince's 
wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005. These two events aroused the interest of the 
international press and gave the dabbawalas unprecedented media popularity. Studies 
by Indian and foreign researchers on the dabbawala style of management rocketed. 
The association's official website offers articles to download, a direct line to the 
president, as well as an option for spending a day delivering dabbas with a group. See [accessed 30 January 2012]. 

3 Augusto Carena, "Un'organizzazione che apprende", in Io erano anni che aspettavo. Impresa, 
lavoro e cultura in uno stabilimento del mezzogiorno dltalia: la Barilla di Melfi, ed. by Giulio Sapelli 
(Parma: Barilla 2009), p. 41. Research was undertaken in the Melfi plant with the participation 
of Augusto Carena, Roberta Garruccio, Germano Maifreda, Sara Roncaglia, Veronica Ronchi, 
Giulio Sapelli, Andrea Strambio and Sara TaUi Nencioni. Carena's work draws upon a systemic 
reading of the Melfi plant and takes Peter Senge's "Fifth Discipline" as the template for the 
structure, setting up five interdependent pivots: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental 
models, group learning, and team learning. See Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: Tire Art & 
Practice of Learning Organization (Danvers, MA: Doubleday, 1990). 

4 Carena (2009), p. 44. 

5 Catherine A. Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod (eds.), Language and the Politics of Emotion 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Much has been written on the concept 
of "corporate culture". Amongst others, see Edgar H. Schein, The Corporate Culture 
Survival Guide (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999); Geert Hofstede and Gert J. Hofstede, 
Cultures and Organizations: Softioarc of the Mind, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005). 
In this case I mean business culture as the intersection of different cultures or micro- 
cultures within the association. Each group has a strategy for developing its task based 
on a shared framework, but also on the possibility of managing that task independently. 
The micro-cultures may not be in harmony with each other and their interactions may 
result in conflicts and contradictions. This is because the company or the trust, belonging 
as it does to the social and symbolic order in which it is located, is a sphere that interacts 
with it and is therefore susceptible to the same processes of conflict and solidarity. 

90 Feeding the City 

about the world, about Bombay, the problems arising in tiffin work. The 
president is responsible for keeping the group together. How can anyone 
who fails to keep his family together keep 5,000 members together? To see 
if someone will be a good president, we test his strength, his intelligence, 
his knowledge, his qualifications, how he bonds with the group, how he 
interacts, if he is able to talk straight with everyone. Sometimes he has to be 
gruff and to do that he has to be confident and show it. He has to be able to 
control the whole group, whether he knows how to do it or not. 

A short story from an NMTBSCT dabbawala: free time and faith 

I came from the village of Rajgurunagar, near Pune, and I've been in 
this family [in other words working as a dabbawala] for ten years. My 
own family is all back at the village. I'm on my own here. Someone from 
the village brought me here to work as a dabbawala. In Bombay I live 
near Four Bangla, at Sagar Kuti, where we have a room. My work starts 
at Four Bangla and goes as far as Vile Parle. We are an association of 
people working as dabbawalas. We meet after work and we pass the time 
performing plays. We go to ramlila [a pilgrimage] and sometimes there's 
Pandhur [this may be the festival of Pandharpur, which is the sacred 
place of the Varkari], we play the lezid [harmonium]. We go on the ramlila 
pandhupratha [pilgrimage] to the temple of Ramgir Baba Garon. We also 
play the harmonium and I play the taal [a kind of drum also called a 
dholak]. But we stopped playing in Bombay about five years ago: we do 
it at the village. 

On Sundays we stay at home with our families. Anyone who doesn't 
have a family here and is alone goes to their friends. You know yourself 
how nice feast days are. Anyone who wants can go, because in this 
country we are free. Anyone who wants can take Sunday off and go 
to their family or their children, or do errands they can't do during the 
week, or meet their friends, meet people. Anything you can't do from 
Monday to Saturday, you can do on a Sunday. We dabbawalas meet for 
the festivities and celebrate them together. For instance, Holi [the festival 
of lights] or feast days on the Hindu calendar. For Holi we all meet the 
day before, because we don't work on Holi itself. During Holi we play 
with colours. We play where we work but if we go to the village, then 
we really celebrate Holi properly, better than in Bombay. They don't do 
so much in Bombay. We share every joy and every sorrow. It doesn't feel 
as if we've gone so far away: the village is close. All my family is there: 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 91 

my wife, my sons and daughters. Two of my children are married and 
two still go to school. One is in seventh class, the other is the fourth 
class of the Marathi school [taught in Marathi]. One is twelve and one 
is eight. I'm Marathi, they are Varkari. [He shows his necklace] This is 
a Pandharpur necklace. As Medge says: 'Work is worship', no doubt 
about it. We all believe that. 

Each area of Mumbai served by the dabbawalas has a director and the areas 
are defined in relation to a railway station. One of these is Borivali; others 
are Kandivali, Malad, Andheri and Thana. The directors are in contact 
with one another and ensure there are no problems in distribution. For this 
reason, they do not have an office but work on trains, station platforms, 
dabba handover areas and places where organisational issues may arise. 
The job of the director is appointed based on skills and seniority, since the 
delivery work is physically very tiring. Aspiring directors must also have an 
aptitude for managing human resources, which can be seen in their vision 
of their work group as a real family and in their loyalty to the association's 
values, expressed in concrete terms by worshipping Varkari Sampradaya. 
Medge describes the role of the director: 

The directors are not in an office and I also go out with them, wandering 
around the trains and platforms. After lunch, after tiffins have been delivered, 
everyone is free and can relax. Then we all go to lunch at Grant Road. Then, 
after 4 pm, we go to Andheri, where we have one of our association offices. 6 
After 7 pm I go home. The director considers the group to be a family where 
everyone works, teaching that along with the gift of food there is the gift of 
knowledge. In this spirit we also give presentations in colleges because only 
the gift of knowledge is greater than the gift of food. 

Gangaram Talekar, the NMTBSCT secretary, adds: 

You move to management when you can't do heavy work or when you get 
old. To be a director you have to be involved [in the association for several 
years]. And you must be able to do other jobs like this. The association 
started appointing directors in 1992, usually electing a director from one 
of the workgroups for a term of five years. Mine was a typical evolution, 
for instance first I was a dabbawala, then a mukadam, then a director, then 
treasurer. Now I'm the secretary and I'll be in office for five years. 

6 The NMTBSCT has three Mumbai branches: Dadar, Andheri (E) and Grant Road. 

92 Feeding the City 

A short story from the NMTBSCT director 

I've been in this job for twenty years. My father worked in the fields. 
When I arrived in Bombay I didn't join the dabbawalas immediately. 
First I went to Malad, because my sister was there and I worked with 
her for five years, then I started this job. I rented a room at Andheri, in 
Sher-E-Panjab, and I became a dabbawala. Many of the other villagers 
were dabbawalas and I liked this job too, so I started with the basic salary. 
After eight years I became a mukadam. I gave money to my mukadam a 
little time at a time. I saved up and slowly paid for the line. Now I have 
two lines in Andheri and I'm both a mukadam and a director. The roles 
are similar, so if someone working in my group doesn't turn up, if 
they're ill or they go back to the village, then I do their job. It used to 
be very good in Bombay, with not too many people. Here in the village 
there wasn't much money and getting to the city was cheap. The work 
was agreeable and the trains weren't jam-packed. It was fine but now it's 
too crowded. The crowds have increased as we've got older. I'm 50, so 
I no longer enjoy this work. The weather in my village is good and it's 
a good place to be. Bombay's too hot, there is a lot of pressure. I used to 
like it; when you're young it's different. The younger ones enjoy it but 
the older ones don't. 

The second line of operations 

The second line of operations is coordinated by over 800 mukadams, 
who supervise the tiffin route as far as the final delivery. 7 The mukadam 
participates in the recruitment of new dabbawalas, assessing their suitability 
by taking into consideration both their reputation and their shared origins 
with other members of the association. He also manages relations with 
customers, making preliminary agreements for deliveries, and administers 
monthly subscriptions (at a cost of about 120 rupees per month). 

As can be seen from the twelve points in the agreement form (Figure 8) 
the delivery system is based on a code whose observance is enforced by the 
mukadam, who also oversees any disputes that may arise among various 

7 Traditionally the term muqaddam (literally "village chief") indicated the upper peasant 
class— a sort of rural aristocracy who did not farm the land directly but enjoyed special 
privileges over the land and crops. See Michelguglielmo Torri, Storia dell'India (Bari: 
Laterza, 2000), p. 194. 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 93 

dabbawala groups as well as having the more difficult task of enhancing 
network competitiveness to improve earnings. 

ti trs u^i^ 

fPlfa, ^Tf3R 5^T7R" 

. TfftnR (5), 5?f-Yoo 0^t> 

^ iJFf TUrat STrat. TTRhl / / ^oo TTTt 

1) One months Salery is Diwaii Bonus. 2) Please do 
not pay without Bill. 3} Please do not keep silver or 
stainless steel utensils in carriers. 5) If carriers are lost 
only value will be paid in the monthly payment of half. 

6) We are not responsible for carriers lost in your office 

7) Delivery wiil dopend as per train timings. 8) If trains 
are last for 1-30 Hours of more the carrier will be return 
as it. 9) If you have any complaint about oure servants 
Please let us know by post. 10) Please look carrer hav- 
ing single supporters hance we wiil not be held respon- 
sible for damage of the lunch. 11) Payment to be made 
in fulll even carrier fails to carry for 8 to 10 days in a 
month 12) If carriers lost we pay half from my only. 

Figure 8. Client agreement form. By kind permission of Raghunath Medge. 

Each of the approximately 120 groups present on Mumbai territory is 
independent of all the others: it is a "Strategic Business Unit" and has 
to increase its customer base in order to generate the dabbawalas' wages. 8 
Medge uses the metaphor of a cricket team to describe the mukadam's role: 

The mukadam supervises the group, is an expert in everything that concerns 
the work, is 'the reserve'. For example there are fifteen people in a cricket 

8 Shrinivas Pandit, Dabawalas (New Delhi: Tata McGraw-Hill, 2007). 

94 Feeding the City 

team, but only eleven are fielded: the others are the reserves. That's the 
mukadam, he's the reserve. He keeps the group together, he's the player who 
knows how to do everything. He holds them together, manages customers, 
helps the dabbawalas load and unload. The trains stop for deliveries for ten 
or fifteen seconds, so he has to help. His work is very important because he 
has to manage lots of people and it's up to him to be able to coordinate the 
group, to look after the dabbawalas, increase revenue. The mukadam is like the 
captain of a cricket team: if the team captain is good, then the team will be 
a success. 

A short story from an NMTBSCT mukadam 

The name of my village is Rajgurunagar and it's in the Pune district. 
I worked in the fields there. There are five of us altogether: four are in 
Bombay and one is in the village, still working in the fields. I came to 
Bombay in 1960 and started with tiffin work in 1967. I used to work in 
Dadar but now I work at Andheri and I'm a mukadam. My father wasn't 
a dabbaivala, he worked in Bombay near Victoria Terminal. He loaded 
and unloaded many of the ships that docked. I've been in this job for 
seventeen years and I've been a mukadam from the start. I have ten to 
twelve people working with me because I bought the line [the line is 
the specific route assigned to a mukadam]. There are forty tiffin in a line 
[here the term line is used to indicate the basket for carrying dabbas], 
which I bought from another dabbawala. Now my Andheri group has 
about thirty to thirty-five lines. A mukadam 's work includes filling in for 
a man if he doesn't come to work. For example, if a dabbawala doesn't 
come to work today, perhaps he's sick, so 111 work in his place. If there 
are problems at the station, they call me: if they need help to load trains, 
or if there are problems with traffic, or parking. But there aren't any big 

The dabbawalas, the mukadams and the thirteen figures that make up the 
executive committee are members, "freelancers": no one is an employee. 
The association has no institutional hierarchy but an agreement for 
decentralised operations, with each group using its own resources to 
extend the customer base. The current contractual formula was drawn up 
in 1982, after two incidents (the 1975 railway worker strike and the 1982 
cotton worker general strike) induced the NMTBSCT president to modify 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 95 

the association's statute, changing it to a cooperative. Gangaram Talekar 

When I started as a dabbawala I was a mukadam. There weren't many mukadams 
then but lots of employees. Each mukadam had eighteen to nineteen people 
working for him. Until 1980 everyone was an employee, including the 
mukadams, and everyone was equal. After 1980, they all became members. If 
someone wants to go to the village, we need men to replace him. Customers 
don't stop eating, they have to eat. Even if a dabbawala doesn't work, 
customers still have to have lunch. So they might buy food from outside, 
but then we lose the customer and work. Before, dabbawalas had a salary and 
as such they worked as employees, so work went like this: today they turn 
up, fine; tomorrow they say they're feeling poorly and don't show up. So if 
they're all members, things are different. 

A dabbawala 's earnings derive in part from the ability of each group to 
attract more customers into their network but also partly from the role 
played by an individual dabbawala in that network. Those who have just 
joined the association and have not purchased a mukadam line have a fixed 
basic wage that may vary according to the group's revenue (from 2,500 
to about 4,000 rupees a month). A mukadam supervising a group earns on 
the basis of how many tiffins his men can deliver; if he supervises various 
groups, who deliver tiffins in various parts of the territory, his earnings 
may be higher (about 6,000-7,000 rupees a month). To become a mukadam, 
an ordinary dabbawala has to buy a customer line being auctioned off, which 
occurs when a mukadam decides to retire and sells off their lines because 
their children are not interested in taking it over. One NMTBSCT dabbawala 
describes how he began: 

I've been doing this job for six years and I come from Pune, from a village 
near Var. I came to Bombay because at home we had problems with the 
rain. Without rain there's nothing at the village. After working so hard 
here, I now know what it's like in Bombay, with crowds and traffic. Not all 
dabbawalas are members. The ones in the network are members. The ones 
who aren't are not members. To be a member you have to register with 
the association and pay twenty-five to thirty rupees in dues. When I started 
working I wasn't a member, I became one when I bought a tiffin line. You 
have to get a line. For example, if someone has a line that costs 5,000 rupees 
and he has to go back to the village because he's tired or because he has to do 
another job, then he says: T have to sell'. If he wants to sell then he auctions 
to the highest bidder. For example, for one rupee I give five; for another I 
give eight, for yet another I give ten, then depending on the value of the line, 
a bid is made. I bought mine for 40,000 rupees. 

96 Feeding the City 

Another dabbawala explains how the system works: 

I'm a member too and fifteen years ago I bought the line for 30,000 rupees. 
The line had forty tiffins. The price of the line is not based on the number 
of tiffins, but the length of the route you cover to deliver them. For 
example, ten tiffins can be worth 2,000 rupees a month but so can two 
tiffins. The price of tiffins is different and this means the price of the line 
is different. So, a 2,000-rupee line may cost between 8,000 and 16,000 
rupees. If a line is worth 20,000 rupees, well pay 80,000 rupees for it. 
We make a bid based on a calculation of how much the line earns every 
month. Anyone who doesn't have the money can't become a member so 
they work for a wage: basic pay is 2,000, 2,500, 3,000 rupees. If a dabbawala 
closes his business, no one can deliver tiffin in his place because if 
someone else goes, people complain to the office. If a customer complains 
T don't want this dabbawala, send another one!' the office can't do anything 
about a dabbawala. But I'm a member and if someone delivers tiffin in my 
place, then I can complain about it to the office: 'This man is taking my tiffin 
to deliver!' So people from the office will tell him: 'Don't take his dabba' and 
the office also fines people. That's why we all work well. 

Data supplied by Medge made it possible to reconstruct the costs of 
managing and the net earnings of an individual dabbawala member. 

A dabba wa la's earnings and default expenses 

blcycie and pushcart 

SO Rs (1, 1KJ Compulsory 

Figure 9. Dabbawala Costs Managing. 9 

9 Data: Ramasastry Chandrasekhar, Dabbawallahs ofMumbai, Richard Ivey School of Business, 
University of Western Ontario, 2004, available at 
student-portal/2011/MBA/Dabbawallahs_of_Mumbai_(A).pdf [accessed 28 October 2012], 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 97 

Distribution logic 10 

We don't cook. The cooking's done at home. We're not a catering service, 
we're just a [distribution] network. You have to imagine food cooked in each 
customer's home and delivered to their place of work. That is our service. 
Caterers cook food. If no one at home can cook the food, then I give the 
phone number of a caterer. T don't have anyone at home to do the cooking, 
so can you cook for me?' We have the numbers of caterers, so if you have 
problems at home and there's nobody there, or they don't have time to give 
children food, then we can give a number. If that's good with the customer, 
they settle a price for the delivery and the cooking service. But not us, we're 
just distribution. 

- NMTBSCT dabbawala 

The NMTBSCT has the monopoly over the meal delivery service and, thanks 
to both its excellent grasp of distribution logistics and the high reputation it 
enjoys as an annadatta (food deliverer), ithas gained a considerable competitive 
edge in a specific segment of the Mumbai market. Traditionally, logistics were 
regarded only as a function that allowed the enterprise to optimise materials, 
goods and intangible flows, like information. With the emergence of the 
'supply chain" concept that the dabbazvalas appear to use in their management 
approach, the whole logistics process has been redefined to optimise links 
and coordination among suppliers, customers and distribution. 11 In this 
respect, the inventory levels and flow of goods in the supply chain have been 
optimised, with an increase in the production efficiency of the enterprise 
and its fulfilment of incoming orders, while improving customer service by 
keeping prices down. The association therefore appears as an organisation 
capable of planning, implementing, and monitoring delivery operations, and 
as an expert in the "art" of moving materials, people and information from 
one place to another in order to satisfy customers. 12 

What is known today as "supply chain management" has been 
effectively, albeit more or less unintentionally, internalised by the 
entrepreneurs of Mumbai's meal delivery sector. The logistics essential to 
managing the distribution network revolve around the availability of urban 

10 This section was written on the basis of my observation and participation in the 
delivery service. 

11 Nasreen Taher, Impeccable Logistics and Supply Chain Management: A Case of Mumbai 
Dabbamallahs (Hyderabad: Icfai University Press, 2007). For a review of "supply chain 
management" practices and theory, see Claudio Ferrozzi and Roy Shapiro, Dalla logistica 
al Supply Chain Management. Teorie ed esperienze (Turin: Isedi, 2000). 

12 C. S. Parekh, The Dabbawallas of Mumbai (unpublished PhD thesis, Narsee Monjee College 
of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai, 2005). 

98 Feeding the City 

infrastructures and the cultural approach that dabbawala customers have to 
food. The dabbawalas adapt their distribution logistics and planning process 
to customer needs, taking into account the flexibility of their own working 
group. In 1998, the American magazine Forbes conducted a study of the 
dabbawala service and awarded its organisation a 6 Sigma, with a 99.9999% 
accuracy rate. 13 This means that only one tiffin in every six million deliveries 
goes astray. 14 Natarajan Balakrishnan and Chung-Piaw Teo, researchers at 
the National University of Singapore, compared the dabbawala distribution 
system with that of postal delivery and of a Mumbai goods retailer. 15 In 
the first case, the mail is sent to a single central sorting branch and then 
delivered to the final recipient via a hub that handles distribution operations. 
The goods retailer, on the other hand, uses a zone map system similar to that 
of the dabbawalas, i.e. identifying groups of vendors within coded zones and 
then supplying each of these through a sub-sorting unit. 

Although logistical considerations are important in meal delivery 
organisation, there is a strong likelihood that the dabbawala system relies 
mainly on Mumbai's specific culture which, in turn, orients the executive 
committee's planning. The dabbawalas identified Mumbai as a source of 
opportunity and their delivery process developed by taking into account 
the changing metropolis and the evolution of the preferences and well- 
being of the inhabitants, the urban infrastructure and social characteristics. 
Indeed, the service is difficult to replicate in other cities precisely because 
several elements characteristic of Mumbai are absent in other urban 
contexts — a very extensive transport network and large working class, 
combined with the cultural unity of the dabbawala association rooted in the 
rural areas around the city. Considering these aspects, it can safely be said 
that Mumbai is the cultural milieu underpinning the dabbawala distribution 
rationale, the mental map that underlies their work and from which they 
draw inspiration. 

The delivery process 

The dabbawala starts work at about eight-thirty in the morning, when he 
cycles or walks to pick up dabbas from the door of the "customer-supplier", 

13 S. Chakravarty, "Fast Food", Forbes Global, 8 October 1998. 

14 U. K. Mallik and D. Mukherjee, "Sigma 6 Dabbawalas of Mumbai and their Operations 
Management: An Analysis", The Management Accountant, 42 (2007), 386-88. 

15 See Natarajan Balakrishnan and Chung-Piaw Teo, "Mumbai Tiffin (dabba) Express", 
University of Singapore, 2004, available at 
bizteocp/dabba.pdf [accessed 17 July 2012]. 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 99 

usually whoever does the cooking. Time is of the essence in this process, 
because if one of the two parties is running late, the subsequent schedule 
fails. On average, each dabbawala is responsible for collecting thirty to 
thirty-five dabbas, the number depending on personal ability to memorise 
customer addresses and the physical strength for carrying the tiffin baskets. 
One NMTBSCT dabbawala describes his day, and the efforts made to deliver 
his tiffin on time: 

I pick up at least forty tiffin from homes just in Lokhandvala, from I, II, III 
and IV Street. Sometimes, when a bank is closed for holidays, there aren't 
so many dabbas, but we still have to go to the customer's home. I start work 
at 8.30 am and by 10.30 I have to be at the station, because my train leaves 
at 10.38. 1 cannot risk missing it, ever. Often someone doesn't have the dabba 
ready in time and it's late, but we adjust, we make it. For instance, we run 
faster up the stairs. If we know we're more than five minutes late, we pedal 
faster. And if we miss the usual train, we catch the fast one so we can make 
up ten or fifteen minutes. If we don't make the train, we use our lunch break 
to deliver tiffin and we eat afterwards. 99% of the time it doesn't happen 
but if it does, we skip our lunch so we can deliver food on time. Then we 
take back the dabbas and we go and sit in the station to eat. But in certain 
circumstances it's just not possible to deliver on time, for example during the 
summer monsoon when it rains, so sometimes we are gridlocked! When it 
rains, that does happen sometimes. 

After this initial collection stage, the containers are taken to the nearest 
station by bicycle or in wooden baskets. Here a second group of dabbazvalas, 
from the same line, takes the previously collected dabbas and loads them 
onto the trains. Although there is no formal agreement with the railways, the 
goods compartment at the head of the train is left for the dabbawalas or people 
carrying bulky goods. The biggest difficulties are the crowded stations and 
trains, which always make it problematic to move the heavy baskets among 
people trying to board the trains. Dabbas have to be loaded very quickly, in 
the thirty seconds the train stops on the platform. After this second stage, all 
the precious lunches are ready to move on to their destinations. If the trip 
is very long and includes a line change, the dabbawala in charge of the final 
delivery takes his own dabbas to a collection and sorting point. There are 
several strategic nodes near railway stations that serve as main centres for 
final sorting. In this case, the figure of the mukadam becomes essential for 
efficient coordination of the delivery network to ensure that no dabba is lost 
or routed to a wrong destination. The third stage is the final delivery: from 
the strategic collection point the cooked lunch is taken to the place of work 
of the "receiver-customer" for about 12.30 pm. The tension gradually eases 
and the dabbawalas can rest, eat their lunch and, lastly, prepare to make the 

100 Feeding the City 

journey back, following a circular route that begins and ends in the same 
way every day of the week except Sunday. 

The Flow Logic 

Collection from home 

Zones for destination 

Grant Road 


Lower Parel 

By Carriers 
at lunchtime 

To offices 

Figure 10. The Flow Logic. Diagram by Pawan G. Agrawal, Director of 
Mumbai Agrawal Institute of Management. By kind permission 
of Raghunath Medge. 

The delivery process is easier to understand by looking at a schedule of the 
stages involved in dabba distribution: 


The dabba is prepared by the "supplier-customer" and 
left outside the front door. 


The dabbawala arrives and picks up the dabba. If he does 
not see it, he knocks on the front door. 


The dabbawala loads the dabba into his tiffin basket or 
onto his bicycle along with others picked up in his area. 


The dabbawala arrives at the dabba collection area of the 
nearest railway station. 


The sorting process starts and dabbas are grouped 
according to where they have to be delivered. 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 101 


When the train arrives, the dabbawalas board the 
compartment at the head of the convoy. 


The train arrives at the major junctions and if the dabbas 
have to change line to reach their destination, they 
are delivered using a relay system involving another 


The dabbas change trains and continue their journey. 


Arrival at destination station. 


rf-i-f J 1 1 111 i ■ 111 1" 1 

the dabbas are loaded onto various baskets or bicycles 
and taken to the "receiver-customer". 


The dabbas arrive at the place of work of the 

lcLclvcl L.LL0LIH.ILCL 


The delivery process is reversed and the empty dabba is 
collected at about 1.30 pm from the "receiver-customer" 
and returned to the "supplier-customer". 

Table 1. Schedule of the dabba distribution. 

The dabbawala alphabet 

A system like this could not exist without a code for identification of the 
dabbas. The containers change hands several times during the day, so 
the group must be able to recognise them or they may be lost along the 
way. Most dabbawalas are completely illiterate or barely able to read and 
write, so tiffin delivery relies on the use of identification systems to ensure 
successful delivery. These systems were an important factor in network 
development and basically comprise four or five symbols of different 
colours painted on the containers. Nevertheless, they do not share the 
same style due to the dabbawala association's characteristics, which gives 
each group the freedom to manage its work independently. Thus, the 
codes are often indigenous, derived from the regions of origin, or are 
symbols that bring to mind specific circumstances. In most cases, however, 

102 Feeding the City 

they are symbols common to the Indian cultural context, like letters of 
the Devanagari alphabet, religious allegories or just geometrical symbols, 
some of which are shown below: 

Figure 11. Examples of dabba symbols. By kind permission of 
Raghunath Medge. 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 103 





Swastika: from the Sanskrit su "well" and asti "being". This is 
the most frequent representation of the swastika used in Hindu 
symbolism. It is an ancient symbol, often linked to the Sun and 
the solar cycle (the four arms may represent the seasons). It is an 
emblem of transformation, of infinite steps of status, of cyclical 
eternity and, as such, has assumed important connotations 
in various religions and philosophies. In Asia it is found in 
Hinduism, in Tibetan shamanism (bon), in Jainism, Buddhism, 
etc. In Europe it is seen in megalithic civilisations, Germanic and 
Celtic shamanism, etc. Often the orientation (right-facing or left- 
facing swastika) or the type of arm (curved or hooked swastika) 
will change according to the cultural context. The Hindu 
swastika is a positive symbol that symbolises the invigorating 
power of the Sun, which is renewed every day, hence the 
allusion to well-being. Traditionally the right-facing swastika is 
connected to Ganesha and is considered an auspicious symbol 
for the start or the inauguration of concepts or businesses, so it 
is seen at the entrance to buildings of worship, on book covers 
and at the front doors of homes. The left-facing swastika is 
consecrated to the goddess Kali. 

Typically in India (and in Tibet, where this symbol is known 
as norbu shi khyi), the swastika is drawn with four dots 
between the arms, an allusion to the four purusharths or duties/ 
principles/achievements/blessings of the Hindu person: 
dharma (righteousness); kama (pleasure); moksha (knowledge); 
and artha (wealth). It is also read, above all in the vajrayana 
Buddhism, as a reference to the four "bodies" or koshas: 

- annamaya kosha: the shell of food (physical body) 

- pranamaya kosha: the shell of the vital force (five life breaths 
and internal organs) 

- manomaya kosha: the shell of the mind (mind and perception) 

- vijnanamaya kosha: the shell of intelligence/understanding 
(mind and senses). 

16 See H. Sarkar and B. M. Pande, Symbols and Graphic Representations in Indian Inscriptions 
(Delhi: Aryan, 1999); and Anna L. Dallapiccola, Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend 
(London: Thames and Hudson, 2002). 

104 Feeding the City 



Swastika without bent arms or even a possible Hindu- 
Christian syncretism of the symbol of the cross and the 




Number seven 






In classic iconography this symbol could be associated to 
a shell for its inner concentric line, reminiscent of a shell's 
circles. In turn, the shell is a symbol attributed to Vishnu. 


T T 1 






Table 2. Glossary of symbols. 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 105 

Despite each group enjoying a certain amount of autonomy, a partial 
standardisation of style was introduced several years ago when Medge 
gave some useful guidelines for creating these symbols. He provides an 
interesting description of this change: 

As far as the code system is concerned, we did use strings in the past, not 
colours but cords of different colours, without applying paint with our 
fingers. There were seven colours and each one indicated the food's district 
of provenance. This system was used in Bombay when the dabbawalas began 
delivering, then the number of dabbas increased. For example, an area of origin 
was green, with a different colour for the final destination, another was yellow 
or white, or black [. . . ] but it was an outdated method. The new code was my 
idea, when I started working. After the coloured strings, but before I arrived, 
there were symbols: plus, minus, dots, arrows, triangles, squares [...] This 
was because few dabbawalas can read and write, even now. But they know how 
to read English addresses, street names, initials, because someone else has 
taught them where to take dabba. The code is not personal, each group has a 
different colour. For example, my group uses green, another group has yellow, 
another grey; so the colour identifies the group. We abandoned triangles to 
adopt this coding because there are seventy-two delivery destinations. Not all 
dabbawala groups use this system, but there are two common denominators: 
the destination and the sorting site. All dabbawalas know this code identifies 
Churchgate, which is a big railway station. It's a large area so it's numbered 
from one to ten; eleven is the Marine Line. Everybody uses that numbering. 
If we look at this sheet we see that this is the dabbawala alphabet. Each letter 
corresponds to a group of fifteen or twenty people, and each has a letter (A, 
B, C, D, E). For example, in my group there may be ten people, or there are 
groups of fifteen or twenty, and each group has a colour. My group is green. 
In the group each person has a letter: he must pick up the containers from the 
homes and take them to the station. Each person collects thirty containers and 
leaves them here, at the collection point. Person B collects thirty containers 
and leaves them here. Person C does likewise. At the Vile Parle sorting 
station, persons A, B, C, etc, divide the containers according to destination: for 
example tiffin with the number three are all for the same destination. Then the 
containers depart. Another person will deliver about thirty containers all in 
the same area. Then there is a number for people who are given the container, 
and a code that indicates the building and the floor. 

The dabba identification code was also essential in 1993, when there were 
bomb attacks on the railway network. On that occasion, despite strict controls 
during the periods following the attacks, there were no specific inspections 
of dabbawalas because, as one interviewee pointed out, in addition to the trust 
placed in them by the police, the dabbawalas themselves are the first to notice 
any abnormalities in their tiffin. Only the dabbawala and the people in his group 

106 Feeding the City 

can recognise dabbas that are not part of their line, thanks to the identification 
codes, and in such a case they would refuse them immediately. An NMTBSCT 
dabbawala explains why tiffins weren't searched during security checks: 

After the bombings there were very strict security checks but we had no 
problems in this respect because everyone trusts tiffin containers, so there 
weren't any problems. Because of the bomb attacks everyone who travelled 
by train was checked, but no one checked dabbawala tiffin containers. 
Everyone recognises a dabbawala. They start from the home, go to the station 
and from the station to the office. If one of our tiffin isn't right, we notice 
immediately. Even if we have a thousand tiffins, if one's not right. . . let's say 
someone plants a tiffin container in amongst ours, we notice immediately, 
because we've never seen it before. Then we know the codes found on the 
dabba but no one else can know our codes. If someone leaves a dabba with a 
bomb in it, if they do that, then well know. We pick up the dabba from home 
and it has our code on it. A dabba goes everywhere but comes back to us. 
Wherever it goes in Bombay, it comes back. 

The Dabba coding system evolution 

Oil paint shapes 

1970s till 
late 1980s 

The Current coding system- Alphanumeric^ in oil paint. 

Origin railway station 

(3 means Churchgale station) to the ground floor of high-rise buildings) 


The name of the dabba owner or address is seldom put on the dabba 
Different groups use different colour coding within the same zone 

Figure 12. The dabba coding system evolution. Diagram by Pawan 
G. Agrawal, director of Mumbai Agrawal Institute of Management. 
By kind permission of Raghunath Medge. 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 107 

Coding System 

VLP : Vile Parle (suburb in 

9EX12 : Code for Dabbawalas 
at Destination 

EX : Express Towers 
(building name) 

12 : Floor no. 

E : Code for Dabbawala 
at residential station 

3 : Code for destination 

Station eg. Churchgate 
Station (Nariman Point) 

Figure 13. The dabba coding current system. Diagram by Pawan G. Agrawal, 
director of Mumbai Agrawal Institute of Management. By kind 
permission of Raghunath Medge. 

Apprenticeship and "practical management" 

As the narrator of this short story reveals, most dabbawalas are illiterate 
or have attended only the early years of elementary schooling. Yet this 
does not seem to pose a problem to their tiffin pick-up and delivery work, 
because the basic skills required for their job rely on two main resources: 
possessing the physical strength needed to carry heavy tiffin baskets and 
being a native of the areas common to all dabbawalas. These two elements 
complement each other, because they allow workers to ground their 
communication in a shared language and a shared faith, as well as in a 
body language they recognise as their own. 

Such non-verbal expressions are seldom studied in social sciences 
but are very important in daily personal interaction, since they allow 
immediate recognition among kin and kind, developing a trust that 

108 Feeding the City 

is not conditioned by verbally expressed knowledge. This "civilised 
gaze" is essential to social interaction, for as Paul Connerton suggests, 
'We always base our particular experiences on a prior context in order 
to ensure that they are intelligible at all". 17 The body, which basically 
learns the world's sensory fabric, retains a memory of our actions, 
incorporating individual behavioural patterns that evolve in the course 
of a community's collective history. This manual memory generates 
a different model of learning, a practical knowledge, which makes 
the social body movement and experience the collective expression of 
everyday work. Medge summarises this knowledge in his definition of 
practical management: 

Nowadays knowledge comes from reading books, whether they're 
about management, engineering or the study of social sciences. Now 
we just read books or a teacher explains, but that's not enough for us. 
Ours is 'hands-on management'. We haven't been trained. We haven't 
studied. There are 3,000 people in our association who still sign using 
their thumbs [literally: 3,000 people use a "thumbs up" to sign. This 
describes an informal, good-humoured gesture used to indicate the 
person is illiterate]. It means that they leave a thumbprint as a signature. 
So, to make an honest living they need a good memory. If you can read 
and write, and have an education, then you can write things on your 
computer, on your cell phone, but anyone who doesn't know how to 
read has to work by memorising everything. They keep everything in 
their heads. Like the blind who hear very well or the dumb who have 
better eyesight. There are about 5,000 of us and 3,000 are illiterate, but 
they are skilled workers. The job is to deliver food. Educated people 
ask questions but illiterate folk just get on with the job. The food there 
has to be delivered to someone, that's all they know. They don't have 
to worry about the rest. So there's precision in their work. If they don't 
work properly, they don't get paid. Without money, they go hungry. So 
they see only their work: with faith, devotion, strength, enthusiasm and 
zeal. They work with all these aspects and with stamina. With devotion, 
with the heart, with hard work you get something, but without prayer 
[because giving food is already in itself a meritorious action, a puja] you 
get nothing. 

1 7 Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 9. 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 109 

An NMBTSC member explains: why we become dabbawalas 

There are many reasons why we leave the village to come to Bombay. 
Some have no choice, some do, some come to work and some for 
pleasure. In this job the point is to have time, not brains or talent, because 
some of us are illiterate, some have been educated, but those who are in 
the service network, whether educated or illiterate, all work the same 
way. Once they've learned the job, once the line work is explained, even 
those who have no education can do it well. Anyone can be perfect for 
this. To do other work you need to be educated, there are limits, you 
need to have reached tenth or twelfth class. But here, even those with 
no education can earn up to 5,000 rupees. Those who live in the village 
are not very well educated, so they came to Bombay to earn a wage 
because even people who are not educated can earn well. People who 
live in the village are used to working from the start, both hard work and 
slow work: for them there's no difference. They just need the money, the 
money for the family. Who can manage on 1,000, 2,000, 2,500 rupees. It 
won't fill the belly, so there has to be another job. They like tiffin work so 
they move here. And if someone doesn't like tiffin work, they don't come, 
they go somewhere else and do another job. 

Cooperative competitors 

Ten people work in my group. Each of them has bought his own line. They 
have the same authority as me. We can only deliver the dabbas if we work 
with each other. Give a helping hand. Like a government coalition, right? 
The government has policy, so do we. By uniting, we can continue to work. 
But governments fall. We don't, because we know that another's loss is also 
my loss. That's what we think and it won't change. 

- NMTBSCT dabbawala 

The shared aim of each dabbawala team is to deliver the customer's lunch 
on time. The group is organised internally so that if one of the dabbawalas 
is absent, he is replaced by a colleague. Moreover, the system requires a 
mentality that promotes the sharing of responsibilities with intensified 
interpersonal cooperation. Medge describes this attitude with a metaphor: 
'the five fingers of a hand alone cannot do much, but if they work together 
they can grasp, embrace, grip, and make hundreds of gestures". Dabbawalas 
therefore manage their business without interfering with that of others, 

110 Feeding the City 

since they know that the fortune of each person is closely connected to 
the system's overall success. The association's structure and the type of 
contract applied to the dabbawalas also foster "cooperative competition". 
This means the groups compete amongst themselves to acquire more 
customers for their own lines, and cooperate with co-workers in the group 
to increase profit and, at the same time, membership for the NMTBSCT. A 
dabbawala talks about this competition: 

There's a lot of competition amongst groups, even more than there is 
amongst politicians. The competition is for tiffins. If someone has tiffins 
to be picked up, they phone for a dabbawala, so you have to get there first 
to get that tiffin. Just think, I want to pick up tiffin before the others, so 
I arrive and I say: 'I'm so-and-so's brother, 111 take that dabba' . There's so 
much competition. Dabbawalas may look a bit daft, but they aren't: they've 
got their heads screwed on. Theyll stop at nothing to take your dabba and 
once they've got it, you can't get it back. But there's no fighting. Once the 
dabba has been collected, you know there's nothing to be gained by arguing. 
If there was any advantage, then we might fight, but there isn't. 

Medge, however, insists that there is no rivalry: 

If someone gets your back up, how can you work? How would we manage 
to deliver? If I have ten customers across Bombay, I can't supply them all 
on my own. If I work with all the others in the luggage car, I can take other 
people's tiffin from the station to be delivered in my area, and theyll take 
mine and deliver it. Deliveries have to be regular. If you can't manage to 
deliver to four customers, then you don't make a profit. If you aren't part of 
the group, you can pick up forty tiffins from Andheri Station, but you can 
never deliver them to forty customers before 12.30. Lunch is at 12.30. So you 
have to be involved in the planning. 

Another dabbawala adds that co-operation is key to success: 

We come from Ambegaon and Maval, the area around Ambegaon. Before 
coming to Bombay we didn't know one another and we got acquainted 
when we started the business. No one knew anyone else before that, because 
we're all from the same district but different villages. Usually, if I'm at the 
village and a friend calls me to say there's work, if I need a job I go. When 
we're a man short, we call someone from the village. Now we all work in the 
same group. Between us dabbawalas of the same group, we don't compete 
for new customers. Not like we do with other groups. At Andheri alone 
there are more than a hundred groups but in all Bombay there's only one 

Competition between teams rarely turns into open conflict, but there may 
be problems between different groups on a train or on the platforms when 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 111 

they are carrying heavy baskets or bicycles. When this happens, a chain 
of communication is triggered from dabbawalas to mukadams, and then 
from the directors as far as the president, if more complex issues are to 
be resolved. Conflicts are never settled by recourse to external figures; 
instead, the association's own rules of conduct are implemented, like a 
'mini government" with legislation and sanctions. Medge explains what 
happens when problems arise: 

The dabbawala first calls his group leader, then the director of the reference 
zone is told, and he calls me in the office. If I'm not in the office, he calls my 
mobile phone. Then we go there. Dabbawala problems may be with the BMS 
[a municipal waste collection service] or bicycle parking. They sometimes 
walk across the tracks so the railway police get involved. If someone forgets 
their baggage pass at home, they have to find the inspector [otherwise he 
does not let the dabbawala through]. If there's any argument the police want 
them brought to the office [sometimes asking for money to resolve the 
situation]. The groups squabble amongst themselves, for competition, for 
money matters. One thing leads to another and there's a fight. Someone 
cracks a joke and someone else gets offended. If there's a dispute, a problem 
with the BMS or the police, or with the public, if someone on the train treads 
on a tiffin container, there's a row and the police turn up. Our director arrives 
and so does the commission, and they sort it out. It's not police business or 
something for the courts to deal with, we run our own regime and as such 
have our rules and regulations, which the dabbawalas themselves obey. We 
don't involve the Indian Government or counsellors. We have defined our 
own rules and regulations, and whatever happens, we solve the problem 
alone. Whatever problem there is at work, we find a solution. We don't call 
a lawyer or go to court or to the police. 

Cultivating empathy with the customer 

Beyond the code of ethics that underpins the delivery service— no alcohol 
to be consumed during working hours; wearing a topi cap to be recognised 
by customers; delivering food as if it were an act of faith; in short, all the 
rules summarised in the expression "work is worship" — there is also a 
certain empathy with the customer. Through a non-aggressive attitude, the 
dabbawala connects with what is probably the most "sentimental" part of 
Mumbai, the bond that exists amongst members of the family when they 
are apart during working hours (a wife to a husband, a mother to her 
children), and which is expressed in the daily act of feeding. 

Dabbas' customers are predominantly men, and work six days a week 
outside the home, spending little time with their families. The wife usually 

112 Feeding the City 

gets up early in the morning to prepare breakfast, and after her children 
and husband have left for school and work, she begins to cook lunch for 
her spouse, waiting for a dabbawala to arrive and pick it up. When the 
dabba reaches the place of work, the husband opens it up and enjoys 
home-cooked food. The meal embodies familiar traditions, recipes 
and flavours. Since it is the wife who usually cleans the tiffin after it is 
returned, she can judge how much her husband enjoyed his meal when 
she sees if there are any leftovers. 18 

The long relationship of trust that enables this everyday emotional 
connection between the city and its "bicycle runners" has its basis in the 
association's internal rules. In fact, when the mukadam recruits, the aspiring 
dabbawala has to be of proven honesty and any violators are stigmatised by 
the group without having to resort to other type of justice. Medge describes 
the bond between the dabbawalas and their customers: 

People have a great deal of trust in dabbawalas. We've been serving some 
of our customers for three generations. Their grandfather ate with us, then 
the son and now the grandson eats with us. We don't recruit our dabbawalas 
externally, they have to have a bond with the people in our district. They 
have to have a permanent address to the village or in Bombay, so either a 
contact with a dabbawala or with his village. That's why customers trust us. 
We enter the customer's home so a dabbawala has to be responsible. He might 
find himself in a situation where he could open a wallet and steal something, 
plant bombs. Someone might steal or he could be a Naxalite, 19 and in that 
case would ruin the reputation of the dabbawalas. We don't want that sort of 
person as a dabbawala. You must register with our association. If one of our 
own steals, then we go to pick him up at the village before the police get him. 

While finding new customers is one of the mukadam 's main tasks, a 
first contact is more often established through word of mouth among 
acquaintances and there is no particular strategy. Potential customers 
recognise a dabbawala on the street by his clothing, or they meet him at 
work, because his job involves delivering lunch to their co-workers. It 
would appear that the most important aspect for a prospective customer is 
that they trust a neighbour who, in turn, trusts a dabbawala. 

18 Marie Percot, "Dabbawalas, Tiffin Carriers of Mumbai: Answering a Need for Specific 
Catering", HAL: Sciences de VHomme et de la Societe, 2005, available at http://halshs. [accessed 10 August 2012]. 

19 The Naxalites take their name from the Maoist revolutionary movement that has its 
origins in a peasant insurrection in the late 1960s, which occurred in the rural district of 
Naxalbari, in West Bengal. Nowadays, "Naxalite" is synonymous in everyday language 
for "terrorist". 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 113 

An NMTBSCT dabbawala describes how this works: 

Tiffin-carriers are dressed in a specific way, they wear a distinctive topi cap, 
so when people who are out on errands, out shopping, see them they call 
them over and say: 'Hey, you, I have a dabba to deliver'. Or, for example, 
you call for a dabba from an office and other people working in that office 
will also ask for tiffin to be brought there. If you're in the office and you eat 
home-cooked food while others eat purchased food, they ask: 'Who brought 
your food from home? How do they bring it? How much is it?' So the 
dabbawala gets contacted. Then there's also the 'title' [the advertising run by 
local channels: a slogan with the association's phone numbers] or sometimes 
flyers. That's where people get the phone number and contact us. They call 
the offices in Andheri, Dadar or Grant Road, and come to an agreement. 
They contact them and say: 'This dabba should be delivered to this person'. 
That's how we get new customers. 

Medge goes into further detail: 

You see, dabbawalas dress in a red jhabba [tunic], white trousers and a topi 
cap. They have their bikes with them and the bike has a bell, so they make a 
noise. If there's a security guard outside your company and you need tiffin 
service, just tell him and hell call the first dabbawala who comes out of the 
alley or the street, to see if he can start delivering tiffin to this building, at 
this number. Then lunchtime is 12.30 pm to 1 pm for everyone, in every 
office, factory, company, data entry desks in public offices. Then they all eat 
together and some of these people have tiffin delivered. So our dabbawala 
goes into the canteen. Lunch is at the same time everywhere in India, so 
everyone goes to the canteen together. Then if someone decides to order 
tiffin, they give the dabbawala a home address. The dabbawala gives it to his 
mukadam, who arranges pick-up. Anywhere you order tiffin, whether at 
home or at the office, my man will deliver. So tiffin is growing. 

Intergenerational ties 

The children of dabbawalas who have grown up in Mumbai often do not 
want to continue the work of the family. This resistance depends on several 
factors: often they are better educated and therefore aspire to professional 
prospects that were unthinkable for their parents. They also may want 
to withdraw from a job that appears tiring and socially degrading. The 
mukadams and the association's executive committee are not particularly 
concerned by this, however, because for every young Mumbaite who says 
no, there is another youth arriving from the old villages who wants to join 
the network. Indeed, it seems that these continual migrations towards the 
city are the lifeblood of the association's identity, characterised by rural 

114 Feeding the City 

virtues and a belief in Varkari devotional expressions. Although Medge 
praises these new recruits, he is aware of generational shifts: "The new 
boys do the dabbawala job well, even if previous generations worked better 
than the new ones. The youth don't have the stamina to work that we had. 
We used to carry tiffin on our heads and shoulders, now it's all done by 
bicycle. Now they're using technology— mobiles, trains, bicycles". 

Another NMTBSCT dabbawala talks about the differences between the 

Everyone has their own opinion about whether their children should come 
into the job. Now we need to see how the new generation will grow up. 
Someone's son will be a dabbawala, someone else's will be a doctor or an 
engineer, and someone else again won't do anything at all, while some will 
go back to the village, because whatever a man thinks may not be how it 
turns out. A person thinks ahead, but doesn't go ahead, because they will 
become what their karma has in store for them [karma taken to mean actions 
to be performed in life to achieve something or become someone] . Everyone 
thinks of moving up but it's not always the case. I think my son will be an 
important person, but who knows if this will really happen. If it's not in his 
Sanskriti [cultural baggage, learned from parents and family], if his karma is 
not to be, he won't become what I think or what I teach. Maybe he'll inherit 
the line from me, sell up and go back to the village. Could be. My father had 
no tiffin lines. I got the line after I arrived in Bombay. I could even just sell 
up and leave. 

The generational turnover in the association is required to ensure the elderly 
return to the village and retire. During the 2007 fieldwork, Medge was 
considering insurance for dabbawalas that would provide compensation for 
any accidents at work and a minimum pension. As things stand, however, 
the livelihood of the elderly still relies on the presence of an extended family 
living in rural areas where the dabbawalas retire at the end of their working 
lives. 20 One dabbawala discusses the importance of inter-generational care: 

When people in Bombay aren't able to work any longer, they return to the 
village and work in the fields. It is work handed down over the generations: 
the son takes over from the father. There are no pensions and children take 
care of their parents. I don't know when. There's no fixed time. As long as 
I can work and there is work, then I'll carry on. That's how it is. The state 
gives me nothing. In our villages or at home we have our children, don't we? 
Maybe the son of a brother will work. 

20 During my stay in the villages of the district of Pune, where most dabbawalas come from, 
I was a guest in Medge's home. His family —his father's two wives and an uncle, himself 
a retired dabbawala— live in a simple house surrounded by fields. 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 115 

Medge says that when he retires, he will go back to his village: 

Bombay is such a costly place and it's up to the new generations to work. 
It takes strength to work and the elderly don't have the strength to live in 
Bombay. That's what the village is for. It takes three hours by train as it's 
about 150km from Bombay. When there are public holidays, Sundays [...] 
I go there to meet my family and come back to work on the Monday. There's 
a problem; how do you find a large apartment in Bombay? So people in 
the group take a kholi [a small room] to share. Then live together, earn the 
money to send back to the village. My father did that too. 

Beyond technology: the railway network as a 
mental map 

The dabbawala service draws its strength from a rational philosophy, 
an architecture of values that sustains a long-lived business based on 
minimum technology. These characteristics fit into the Mumbai way of life 
for two reasons: on the one hand, the dabbawalas convert their source values 
into knowledge of the urban territory and thus connect with the desires 
of people at an essential, intimate, and emotional level; 21 on the other, the 
world of "small things" that they represent finds the widespread transport 
network, in particular the railways (with their low environmental impact), 
to be the means for reaching every customer. One dabbawala emphasises the 
significance of the railways in his work: 

We have a lot of work on the Western Line from Virar to Churchgate. This 
line is very important to us, while the Thana-Dombivali-Kalyan aren't so 
important. If these lines don't work out there aren't many problems for 
our network. At most, we go up to Thane when we must, if the train's on 
time... But the Western Line, from Virar to Cluirchgate, is very important. 

Every day, the urban rail and bus services are packed with commuters, 
who thus come into contact both physically (just taking a trip on any train 
will reveal what it means to be surrounded by a crowd like this, constantly 
jostling to get on and off) and mentally (since travelling together requires 
some mutual arrangement, a code of survival and reciprocal respect). This 
implicit code of conduct allows residents to access streets drawn on the 
Mumbai map, defined by stations, architecture, houses and signs that 

21 Pandit (2007). 

116 Feeding the City 

are all part of the sphere of social interaction. 22 The latter demonstrates 
how power is stratified by class (first and second class compartments), 
gender (men and women), or bodily expressions (it is important to avoid 
physical contact with other passengers). Moreover, the city's employment 
stratification is also clear: the packed rush-hour compartments reveal 
the professions of passengers. Office workers, teachers, factory workers, 
labourers and domestic help all usually catch trains between 7.30 and 
8.30 am; sales staff going to the big shopping centres and those who do not 
have jobs in the public administration travel later. The railways connect the 
points of urban geography and are a kind of mental map for Mumbaites, 
allowing a linear view of the city, recognising it by the stations, the huge 
junctions that connect various rail lines and offering safe transit despite the 
endless changes in urban toponymy. 23 

The railways function as a relational nexus, an antidote to social 
fragmentation. Not only do they connect space and people, they also 
weave the threads of the many lives being played out in Mumbai into a 
tapestry that its residents can recognise and understand. 24 Their social 
role is entwined with the very nature of the city, which is neither that of 
a cultural "melting pot", nor of a "salad bowl" or a "mosaic"— to quote 
some of the metaphors commonly used by scholars to describe culturally 
complex human urban aggregates— but it is rather a "connective nature", 
experienced and reproduced on a daily basis by millions of people. 

The dabbawalas, like most of the people of Mumbai, make this means of 
transport their most relied upon technology. The wooden basket is still a 
key device for delivery, the bicycle has only been in use for ten years and the 
most recent conquest, the cell phone, facilitates communications between 
colleagues in a line. The aim, repeatedly reaffirmed by the president, is to 
limit the expenses that could only be sustained by increasing the cost of 
the monthly subscription. One NMTBSCT dabbawala talks about the way 
that technology has changed the ways in which the dabbawala network can 

Before, the real problem was that there weren't any bicycles, there was 
a wooden basket where all the tiffin was stacked. We carried the baskets 

22 Jim Masselos, "Defining Moments/Defining Events: Commonalities of Urban Life", 
in Bombay and Mumbai: The City in Transition, ed. by Sujata Patel and Jim Masselos 
(New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 31-52 (p. 32). 

23 Ibid., p. 39. 

24 Manu Goswami, Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space (Chicago: 
University of Chicago Press, 2004). 

3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust 117 

on our heads and we walked. But then came the bicycle, then trains and 
other commodities to make work easier, so that's why we like our job: it 
has become easier. Now, with cell phones you can find out if you've missed 
a dabba. For example, I've ten men and we're all in contact. One at Andheri, a 
second at Dadar, a third at Churchgate, one goes to Ghatkopar. So if I miss a 
Ghatkopar dabba, I ring my man there and he can take that dabba. Hell take 
it to Ghatkopar Station and from there another man will deliver the dabba 
at Dadar. From there another man takes the dabba and goes to Andheri. For 
instance, if someone misses the 10.30 am train, the slow train, which goes to 
Churchgate, he can take the fast train and we know he'll get to Vile Parle or 
to Dadar. So to catch up with the slow train, I go on the fast train and I catch 
up with him at Dadar. If I don't catch the slow train to Dadar, then I catch up 
at Bombay Central; if I don't catch up at Bombay Central then we catch him 
at Churchgate. The hour's leeway I have becomes fifteen to twenty minutes 
and if I can't find him I phone and say to those who have missed the train: 
'Get off at Dadar'. In the meantime we have other tiffin and when we get 
there we hand over to the others who have the numbers. So with a mobile 
phone, work has improved, because we know if someone has missed a train, 
if someone has to get off at an earlier or later station. In a word, with a 
mobile it's become a bit easier. Before it was different. You didn't even know 
if a person had gone to work or not. By phoning you find out [. . . ] Customers 
also know if the dabbawala is at work or not. If he's delayed he calls and we 
let them known he's on his way. 

Not even the monsoon stops dabbawalas delivering, although at times high 
water prevents trains using their usual track. In this case, as an interviewee 
explained very precisely, the service stops and the dabba is taken back home: 

When the trains were stopped for rain, we'd bring tiffin back. If the train 
had gone on, we'd have lost a bit of time. For instance, if a dabba has to 
arrive at 1 pm, it'll get there for 1.15 pm. But if the train stops, like when it 
floods with rain, then the dabba goes back. Any such loss is the customer's, 
but they don't complain because they know the dabbawalas have had this 
kind of problem. It's not intentional: if the train stops, we can't take the 
dabba as far as Churchgate. If you're close, then that's OK. But if it's from 
Churchgate to Grant Road, at Mumbai Central or even further than this, 
then we can't go by bike up to there. And even with a bike, how can we 
get through the streets if there's high water? So we take the food back to 
the home. Just like we picked it up, we take it back. If the train stops, then 
our work stops too. 

The dabbawalas base the entire service on the use of suburban trains, because 
deliveries are limited primarily to areas where a track is installed. The 
railway network comprises three lines: the Western Line that passes through 
the western suburbs and extends from Churchgate to Virar; the Central 

118 Feeding the City 

Main Line which passes through Thane and the central suburbs, and runs 
from Victoria Terminus (or Chattrapati Shivaji) to Kalyan (this is the line 
that meets the Western Line at the Dadar junction); and the Harbour Line 
from Victoria Terminus, branching at Vadala Road, with one branch going 
towards Panvel and the other towards Andheri. The dabbawalas celebrate 
the railways every month with a puja (excluding June, July and August 
because of the monsoons). Through this prayer, the sacralising expression 
of daily life, they give thanks to this valuable means of communication 
that allows the service to prosper by delivering lunch to customers. It is no 
coincidence that a popular Mumbai saying is: "If the train is the lifeline of 
the city, the dabbawalas are the food line". An NMTBSCT dabbawala explains 
the role of puja: 

Mr Bacche started puja in every station in 1952, so we too have puja in every 
station. For example, Andheri, Dadar, Marine Line and Churchgate all have 
puja every week, one week in one station, the week after in another. So in 
a year, every station has pujas, because there are so many stations. At least 
thirty to thirty-five stations so there are thirty to thirty-five pujas. We had 
puja at Andheri on 10 March, where we sang kirtan [a ceremony of choral 
singing of devotional hymns to the gods]. There was puja at Dadar, Khar, 
and Santakruz. Now there will be no further puja until next year because 
during the rainy period we don't have it. When the rains stop, puja starts 
up again. We have puja for Satnarayan [one of the names of Lord Shiva] and 
we also offer food [real food, not just sweets but a handful of millet]. The 
funds for puja are collected by our one hundred members: each dabbawala 
gives thirty rupees per month and each area collects money for their own 
district puja. 

Conclusions: Tastes and 

The sphere of taste [...] is stratified. The first level is located towards the 
periphery of our mental life, where we find the various qualities of taste, 
which may be associated to a feeling of pleasure or unhappiness. At a 
second level, which is much deeper and cannot be assimilated to the sphere 
of simple sensorial qualities, we will find our personality and the unique, 
specific value it glimpses in the life around it. 

— Eugene Minkowski 1 

The little dabbas that travel daily through the crowded streets of Mumbai 
can be thought of as narrative devices that describe the cultures of the city. 2 
They are also a gauge of the transformations at play in urban food supply 
and acculturation that have always characterised Mumbai — a masala of 
ingredients, flavours and commensality. As ethnographic research has 
taught so successfully and as Homi K. Bhabha has pointed out, "It is in 
the emergence of the interstices— the overlap and displacement of domains 
of difference— that the intersubjective and collective experiences of [...] 
or cultural value are negotiated". 3 The dabba can also be seen as "the god 
of small things", an expression of a world of tiny things, ordinary things, 

1 Eugene Minkowski, Vers une cosmologie. Fragments philosophiques (Paris: Aubier- 
Montaigne, 1936), it. trans. Verso una cosmologia (Turin: Einaudi, 2005), pp. 184-85. 
English translations of this and subsequent quotes from French and Italian sources are 
by the author. 

2 I would like to mention an interesting installation by an Indian artist Bose Krishnamachari 
in the exhibition India arte oggi: I'arte contemporanea Indiana fra continuity e trasformazione 
(2007-2008), hosted at the Spazio Oberdan in Milan. The artwork included several dabbas 
hanging on wires to represent the many voices of Mumbai. 

3 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 1-2. 

DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0031.04 

120 Feeding the City 

daily events that seem unimportant but in fact overflow with meaning, 
apparently embracing a large symbolic heritage. 4 

A humble epistemology 

When my fieldwork was completed, I tried to remember the first thing I 
noticed when I arrived in Mumbai and immediately the memory was of the 
impact of different, unfamiliar smells and tastes. It is no coincidence that 
this impact represents a classic case of exoticism and alienation. People are 
so used to these sensorial stimuli, experiencing the city and its expressions 
daily, that they influence "social organisation, conceptions of oneself and 
the cosmos, control of emotions and other areas of the corporal experience", 
interpreting sensorial decentralisation as a fundamental law of humble 
epistemology. 5 It is not always easy, however, to recognise what is concealed 
in a taste or smell, because food flows are as extensive and complex as they 
are invisible. They are, however, recognisable and inscribed as secondary 
forms in every human body: the traces are seen in leanness or strength; 
the rejection of certain foods or conversely their adulation; the practices of 
sharing food that presume a socialisation based on the visibility of the body 
and its attributes; and, lastly, in the aromas of some cuisines that infiltrate 
and "spice" the bodies of those who consume them. Perceptions of daily 
habits and practices often repeat seemingly enduring stereotypes. 

4 The reference is to the hologram principle invented by Edgar Morin, who says: "The 
third is the hologrammatic principle. In a physical hologram, the smallest point in the 
hologram image contains almost all the information of the object depicted. Not only 
is the part in the whole, but the whole is in the part". See Edgar Morin, Introduction a 
la pensee complexe (Paris: ESF Editeur, 1990), it. trans. Introduzione al pensiero complesso 
(Milan: Sperling and Kupfer, 1993), p. 74. 

5 Paul Stoller, Tire Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology (Philadelphia: 
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), p. 5. On sense of taste see David Le Breton, 
La Saveur du Monde: une anthropologic des sens (Paris: Editions Metailie, 2006). In recent 
years there have been several publications on the sense of smell and its socio-cultural 
implications. Annick Le Guerer states that "the same smell that marks an individual 
as belonging to a group and promotes cohesion, marks the individual as alien to other 
groups and erects a barrier between the individual and the groups". Smell then becomes 
the tool, justification or simply the emblem of racial, social or even moral rejection. See 
Annick Le Guerer, Les pouvoirs de Vodeur (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1998). Further references are 
found in Gianni De Martino, Odori. Entrate in contatto con il quinto senso (Melzo: Apogeo, 
1997); Alessandro Gusman, Antropologia deil'olfatto (Rome: Laterza, 2004); and Alain 
Corbin, Le miasme et la jonquille. L'odorat et I'imaginaire social aux XVIIIe et XIXe siecles 
(Paris: Flammarion, 2005). 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 121 

On closer analysis, representations of food, channelled into the 
materiality of the body, seem to reflect successfully the dilemmas of modern 
times and the globalisation processes that affect our everyday lives. Often 
these dilemmas become dichotomies: slow food versus fast food; local food 
versus global food; traditional versus modern; organic versus processed. 6 
These polarisations express the primal fears that humans have always had 
when introducing different foods into their bodies. Once again the theme of 
cultural diversity is presented with its inherent polysemy: what is familiar 
is the expression of what it is— summed up in the title of Carlo Petrini's 
work on these issues, Buono, pulito e giusto [Good, Clean and Right] — while 
what is unknown, and therefore different, is dangerous and ambiguous. 7 

Food has always been potentially harmful, so recourse to tradition, and 
therefore to the syllogism with authenticity, attempts to be a protective 
measure against possible risks. Which principle, however, do we apply 
in inventing the protective measures that we use? Ludwig Wittgenstein 
answers thus: "the principle by which all hazards are reduced, because of 
their form, to several that are very simple that are surely visible to humans". 8 
This means finding the links that connect global food practices to those of 
individuals. Food becomes an indicator of cultural changes because the 
sequence of globalisations that has occurred throughout history created 
local cultures and new forms of identity, which are expressed through food, 
language, fashion and tangible signs of continuous, reiterated acculturation 

Globalisation is a relatively differentiated transformation process (or set 
of processes) that historians call a "differential of contemporaneity". 9 Its 
local manifestations are not always identical, since they are expressed by 
mixing indigenous elements with others foreign to the territory. Food can 
express the diversity of forms that globalisation has assumed and continues 
to adopt, especially if it can be connecyed to the dynamics of large scale 

6 Richard Wilk, Home Cooking in the Global Village: Caribbean Food from Buccaneers to 
Ecotourists (Oxford: Berg, 2006). 

7 Carlo Petrini, Buono, pulito e giusto. Principi di una nttova gastrosemantica (Turin: Einaudi, 
2005). It is not only a dichotomous polarisation: facets of food are far more indistinct. 

8 Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Bemerkungen iiber Frazers The Golden Bough", Synthese, 
17 (1967), 233-53. 

9 See, amongst others, Zygmunt Bauman, Globalisation: The Human Consequences (New 
York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Ulrich Beck, Was ist Globalisierung (Berlin, 
Suhrkamp Verlag, 1997); and Mike Featherstone (ed.), Global Culture (London: Sage, 

122 Feeding the City 

international trade. 10 Thus the forms that seek to reduce, reject or introject 
the impact of globalisation on food also acquire a less incomprehensible 
connotation. These forms fall into three main reactions: 

• resistance, in other words the refusal that may be expressed by 
restricting use of products and foods arriving from abroad, or 
identified as symbolising a culture extraneous to one's own; 

• hybridism, in other words a system whereby cultural diversities 
interweave continuously and generate new culinary traditions. 
A creative act that allows elements of different expressions of food 
to come together in a creolisation process; and 

• appropriation, in other words a culture's capacity to absorb external 
influences and convert them into something that becomes part of 
its own history. 11 

Richard Wilk's model makes it possible to observe the gastronomic details 
of the diverse forms that ingredients assume in a recipe when different 
cultures come into contact: 

• blending: one of the most elementary methods for developing new 
forms of food creolisation. Ingredients, methods, techniques, and 
cooking procedures are combined to obtain new combinations; 

• submersion: a unique way of mixing foods whereby an ingredient is 
submerged and absorbed until it disappears into the fusion to the 
point that its flavour identity is totally eliminated; 

• substitution: a technique that replaces a specific ingredient in a 
recipe with a new, local component. Consequently, the original 
dish can be simulated even when the original raw materials cannot 
be found for the dish; 

• wrapping and stuffing (adapting a filling): introduction of a local 
ingredient into an unfamiliar dish, allowing the final dish to be 
identified through the "personal" flavour; 

• compression: the decision to elect a single recipe as the icon of an 
entire society. The different flavours present in a civilisation are 
compressed and simplified. The menu of any restaurant translates 
the cuisine of a territory through cultural compression; 

10 One of the best overviews of this aspect can be found in Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and 
Power. The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking, 1985). 

11 Wilk (2006). 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 123 

• alternation and promotion: indicates the way in which unknown 
foods begin to be sampled at different times and in ways that differ 
from the original context. For instance, dishes usually served as 
main courses are presented as snacks. 12 

Consulting cookbooks will provide an understanding of the changes 
occurring at the gastronomic and social levels. From this point of view, 
cookbooks are documents, "barometers of the society that generated 
them", valuable indicators that can translate a territory and the life of its 
community at a cultural level. 13 A cookery book will describe native plants, 
changes in taste brought by new ingredients, treatments for illnesses, 
body management, food taboos, or religious requirements. The summary 
provided shows only some of the many ways in which different ingredients 
combine to create dishes in the context of a culture different from where it 
originally developed. 14 The preparation of food is not stable but related to 
social changes, themselves linked to sensorial classifications that acquire 
new meanings through flavour. The new flavour is rooted in collective 
memory and produces shared new languages and relationships, expressing 
transformed socialisations and business practices. The interrelationship of 
these spheres in turn reinforces the new flavour and expressions connected 
to it. 

An interesting case is the expansion of Indian restaurants in Britain: the 
first takeaways made their appearance in the 1950s, after a large wave of 
immigrants arrived from the subcontinent. Indian food was associated with 
curry, a spice that suggested a long history of trade and relations between 
India and Britain. 15 Curry became synonymous with cheap Indian food and 

12 Ibid., pp. 114-21. 

13 See P. Caccia, "La cucina nei libri. Brevissima storia dei ricettari di cucina italiani dalle 
origini ai giorni nostri", Eating, September 2008. Available at 
attach/lacucinaneilibri.pdf [accessed 18 July 2012]. 

14 Great flexibility and creativity in the approach to food are not a recent phenomenon. For 
Giuseppe Rotilio this phase established gradually in the course of human evolution and 
culminated 10,000 years ago with the conversion of many populations to agriculture 
and stock rearing. In the contemporary world there are still isolated human groups who 
have adapted perfectly to their ecosystem as in the arctic and subarctic tundra, Amazon 
rainforest, South African, and Australian deserts. Giuseppe Rotilio, "L'alimentazione 
degli ominidi fino alia rivoluzione agropastorale del neolitico", in In came e ossa. DNA, 
cibo e culture dell'uomo preistorico, ed. by Gianfranco Biondi, Fabio Martini, Olga Rickards 
and Giuseppe Rotilio (Bari: Laterza, 2006), pp. 83-145 (p. 85). 

15 It is interesting to note that the spice synonymous with Indian food worldwide is actually 
an English word whose origin has been attributed to several sources. Curry probably 
derives from a South Indian word, kaikaari, or its shortened version kaari, indicating 

124 Feeding the City 

Indian restaurants associated with places where the working classes could 
eat lunch for a few pounds. The Indian restaurant was seen as a colossal 
entity where India's vast gastronomic repertoire was compressed into this 
single ingredient, curry. Until the 1970s, "going for a curry" had a special 
meaning, indicating where people went after the pub closed, to eat and 
sober up — possibly being sick in the process. Indian restaurants exploited 
the ignorance of British customers, who had no awareness of the difference 
between one type of Indian food and another. Later, a greater knowledge 
of food persuaded some consumers to seek more "authentic" food, where 
'authentic" was associated with tandoor ovens, later ousted by the wok. 
Then, in the 1990s, came the balti, a container used in Pakistan to carry 
bathing water and whose original meaning was actually "bucket", but over 
time came to mean "metal container", then pan, usually in iron or steel, for 
cooking mirpuri dishes. 

In this way, the role of the Indian restaurant in British society changed, 
acquiring a new class of customers following fantasies of exotic, original 
flavours. Restaurant names were proof of this shift. In the 1960s, names 
like "Maharaja" or "Last Days of the Raj" were common, an expression of 
the recently-lost empire; later "Taj Mahal" and "The Red Fort" conjured up 
India's rich history prior to years of British colonisation; and then names 
like "Bombay Brasserie" revealed a relationship with European culture 
and the influence of new cosmopolitan connections. Now, the most recent 
phase shows a preference for names like "Soho Spice" and "Cafe Laziz", 
where it is no longer necessary to refer to "ethnic" food and there is evident 
familiarity with this place where Indians have now been living for decades. 16 

The multiplicity of forms assumed both by ingredients and by places 
where food is served shows how globalisation has not regimented 
sensorial categories of taste, nor has it conformed to a uniform— mostly 

vegetables cooked in kari, spices mixed with coconut. Another suggestion is that the root 
of the word curry is karai or kadhai, indicating the wok used in Indian cuisine. Finally, 
since the British occupation began in Bengal, where some dishes are called torkari, the 
name may have been shortened, anglicised, and used as a synonym for Indian food. 
16 See Ziauddin Sardar and Borin Van Loon, Introducing Cultural Studies (Cambridge: 
Icon Books, 1999). In Italy, Indian restaurants began to open in the 1980s and benefited 
immediately from the repositioning that had occurred in other European countries. The 
target is a middle to upper class patron and only recently have small delis started to 
sell cheaper Indian food for consumption on the premises or as takeaway. On "ethnic" 
catering see Enzo Colombo, Gianmarco Navarini and Giovanni Semi, "I contorni del 
cibo etnico", in Cibo, outturn, identita, ed. by Federico Neresini and Valentina Rettore 
(Rome: Carocci, 2008), pp. 78-96. 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 125 

industrial— culture that imposes likes and dislikes. Instead it has adapted 
to the uniqueness of each place, because globalisation is a process of 
continuous change worldwide, feeding on the stimuli that enter the 
bloodstream locally. Furthermore, the ways in which people interpret the 
interactions between global and local also continue to change. 17 Each social 
group adopts its own eating style, typical of the world around it. Without 
underestimating changes in consumer tastes induced by advertising, mass 
marketing and other global stimuli— which introduce new experiences and 
food preferences through a slow, gradual process — food remains tied to 
the taste that everyone recognises as part of their cultural heritage. 18 The 
taste that develops over the course of a generation or a lifetime is intimately 
linked with childhood, family and intergenerational relations, but also 
changes through the different experiences everyone acquires. Taste belongs 
not only to impulses triggered by sensory perceptions, but also to the order 
of signification, the way we interpret and shape the world. Moreover, it 
develops as part of historical processes that change incessantly, to the point 
that the importance of taste seems capable of permeating the moral sphere 
of individuals or the tools with which it is expressed. 19 

Mumbai and its processes of food diversities 

In the twentieth century various anthropologists studied nutrition, 
contributing to decoupling the concept of food from its basic meaning 
of "nourishment" as the fulfilment of a physiological need. The nature of 
food as a cultural construct was developed by human communities over 
the centuries: what people eat is the result of human history. Our species 
learned to use fire, to experiment with cooking techniques, to recognise 
poisonous foods, to develop multifaceted dishes, and to travel and export 
tastes and ingredients to different places. Historical anthropology highlights 
the importance of the so-called "plants of civilisation", which are the food 
foundations necessary for the development of complex cultures: wheat in 
Europe and the Middle East; maize in Mexico; the potato in the Andes; 

17 Wilk (2006). 

18 See Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How The Food Industry Influences Nutrition and 
Health (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). For a better understanding of 
agri-food marketing, see Antonio Foglio, // marketing agroalimentare. Mercato e strategic di 
commercializzazione (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2007). 

19 Matty Chiva, he doux et Vomer (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1985). 

126 Feeding the City 

and rice in Asia. 20 The evolution of human eating practices was a lengthy 
historical process in which knowledge and experiences related to obtaining 
food (hunting, fishing, gathering, stock-rearing, agriculture, etc) and 
transforming what was procured, became rooted in generations of human 
social customs. Foods, as well as the processes that shape their edibility and 
usability, become the cornerstone of extensive cultural relations affected by 
social, economic and political dynamics. 

Fernand Braudel observes that food never ceases to travel around the 
world and revolutionise people's lives. 21 Indeed, many of the foods we 
consume daily are the result of large and small migrations, historical and 
political changes, and infinite human curiosity. 22 This is another reason why, 
in the first part of this book, I emphasised the close relationship that bound 
Bombay food culture to the perennial flow of migrants who chose the city 
as a temporary or stable destination to live and work. This relationship has 
not changed now that the city has become Mumbai. The cohabitation of 
multiple ethnic groups, languages and cultures shapes the specific Mumbai 
migratory model. This model confers a connecting role on the figure of 
the migrant from the rural hinterland, who adapts to metropolitan life in 
such a way that they become the go-between among different lifestyles. 
The constant— and not always peaceful— dialectic between the city and 
the rural roots of most migrants promotes new social and consumption 
structures that appear to make Mumbai a paradigmatic global city. 23 

20 Alessandra Guigoni, "L'alimentazione mediterranea tra locale e globale, tra passato e 
presente", in Saperi e sapori del Mediterraneo, ed. by Radhouan Ben Amara and Alessandra 
Guigoni (Cagliari: AM&D, 2006), pp. 81-92. 

21 Fernand Braudel, Civilisation materielle, economic et capitalisme, XV-XVIII Steele. Les 
structures du quotidian (Paris: Armand Colin, 1979). 

22 For the history of food, see Massimo Montanari and Francoise Sabban, Storia e geografia 
dell'alimentazione, 2 vols. (Turin: Utet, 2004); Christian Boudan, Geopolitique du gout (Paris: 
Presses Universitaires de France, 2004). 

23 The study of cities as epicentres of global cultural and economic exchange developed in 
the 1980s and 1990s, as part of globalisation studies. Large urban centres have always 
been the subject of study, regardless of the nation states and the "global city" concept 
developed concomitantly with key contemporary phenomena: the end of bipolar 
geopolitical order; the emergence of new methods of global governance; and post- 
modern condition theories. See Jordi Borja and Manuel Castells, Local and Global: The 
Management of Cities in the Information Age (London: Earthscan, 1997); Manuel Castells, 
The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. The Rise of the Nehoork Society, vol. 1 
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1996); Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo 
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); and Saskia Sassen, Cities in a World 
Economy (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1994). 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 127 

The city's food is also the expression of an acculturation process 
reiterated over time, hallmarked by its constant dynamism. 24 The clear-cut 
food distinctions in Mumbai's various communities reflect the changes 
occurring on a global scale, where migrating people bring the ingredients 
and recipes of their home to the city, alongside a "migration of cultural 
models [...] in the absence of migrant humans". 25 In other words, a migration 
of cognitive, behavioural and even technological models that characterise 
differentbackgrounds: rural contexts; other Indian megalopolises; diasporic 
places. Another tangible testimony of this complex process is found in the 
phenomena of food reinterpretation and revisitation pursued by Indians 
living outside India. 

Mumbai looks like the perfect food workshop, the destination of 
ingredients and culinary reworking from all over the world. This is also 
attributable to its geographical status as a commercial port with permanent 
availability of typical raw materials for different diets, thanks to goods 
arriving from across Asia, Africa and Europe. Migratory processes have 
thus helped to nurture Mumbai's food prosopography, a gastronomic 
physiognomy that is also the result of strategies applied by the immigrant 
population for adaptation and economic integration. These strategies, as 
already seen, also delineate "parables of identity", narratives that create, 
enhance, or reinvent a collective identity. 26 In the first phase, migrants 
retain the food profile of their birthplace, preserving eating habits and 
seeking out places where this diet is honoured as the quintessence of a 
specific group identity. 27 The later stage develops over the years, with the 

24 The "acculturation" concept developed in the USA during the difficult period preceding 
the 1929 global crisis. Awareness was growing of the problems of the colonised on one 
hand, and on the other the problems of a society that had been thriving and in continual 
growth. In anthropological sciences this term indicates the complex processes of cultural 
contact through which societies or social groups assimilate from or are imposed with 
elements or groups of elements by other societies. To reconstruct the wide spectrum of 
ethnographic and anthropological reflections on the term see Pierre Bonte and Michel 
Izard (eds.), Dictionnaire d'ethnologie et anthropologic (Paris: Presses Universitaires de 
France, 1991), pp. 1-2; and Alphonse Dupront, L'Acculturazione. Per un nuovo rapporto tret 
ricerca storica e scienze umane (Turin: Einaudi, 1966). 

25 David Paolini, Tullio Seppilli and Alberto Sorbini, Migrazioni e culture ahmentari (Foligno: 
Editoriale Umbra, 2002), p. 12. 

26 Stefano Allovio, "La 'vera carne' dei pigmei: parabole identitarie e strategie alimentari in 
Africa centrale", paper presented at the conference Piatto pieno, piatto vuoto, prodotti locali 
e appetiti globali, Universita Statale, Milan, 2 April 2008. 

27 Those who migrate with the family find that meals eaten at home assume a crucial 
symbolic value, as do those shared with compatriots at work, or even those consumed 
in the small eateries run by fellow countrymen. It is also true that being able to eat food 

128 Feeding the City 

arrival of second generations who often modify the overall migrant project 
and evolve it to include a wider participation in various aspects of city 
life, eventually also conferring a different value on food. Eating practices 
progressively hybridise, interacting with local ingredients and customs. 

Through the continual contribution of migrations that transform and 
redefine Mumbai constantly, the city shows that this hybridisation process 
is neither linear nor diachronic. Each day it is re-lived differently, depending 
on the regional and caste origins of the city's migrants, and on the special 
values attributed to their practices. The city moves like a body, exhibiting 
its food needs, and in so doing draws its own cultural map, in line with the 
major challenges that Tullio Seppilli defines as the "planetary globalisation 
of the food market". 28 This complex interplay allows a glimpse into one 
of the possible outcomes for eating habits in global cities. The younger 
generations are accustomed to eating in different ways. On one hand, at 
home they eat the food of their family's origins, served on holidays and 
at get-togethers. On the other, they eat in collective contexts — at school, 
at work, in public spaces— where they consume "urban food", in which 
the combination of different traditions is enriched by the individuality of 
Mumbai. 29 In view of this multifaceted interaction, young Mumbaites tend 
to become accustomed to the incorporation of a food model that finds its 
truest expression in this fusion of tastes. 

The relationship with the territory articulates the character that society 
constructs for taste. 30 Access to certain ingredients shapes our likes and 

from one's own home enables interior control that is impossible with exterior reality. 
Through the food control is exercised over the body, which conversely is difficult to 
reproduce in the society to which one has emigrated. 

28 Paolini, Seppilli and Sorbini (2002), p. 27. In Mumbai this is glaringly evident in the 
presence of huge global chains like McDonalds and Pizza Hut, as well as brands like 

29 It is also possible to consider two different levels: on the one hand "eso-cuisine", for 
non-family; on the other, "endo-cuisine" for the family. 

30 There are three meanings for taste: the first is linked to the sensory-perceptual dimension 
and sees it as one of the senses that characterise subjective perceptions (along with smell, 
touch, sight and hearing); the second is an aesthetic judgment that translates individual 
preferences for a certain object or object class; the third refers to a social dimension and 
defines a given preference or trend of socially defined groups. See Giorgio Grignaffini, 

"Estesia e discorsi sociali: per una sociosemiotica della degustazione del vino", in Gusti 
e disgusti. Sociosemiotica del quotidiano, ed. by Eric Landowski and Jose L. Fiorin (Turin: 
Testo & Immagine, 2000), pp. 214-32 (pp. 215-16). Beyond these distinctions, the three 
cases can be traced back to a perspective of taste belonging to the order of signification, 
in other words a construction that transforms and gives meaning to the world even as it 
evolves socially and culturally. 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 129 

dislikes, developing into a system of distinctions, discriminations, class and 
gender. 31 Taste is probably the most visible expression of ethnocentrism. 
According to Sidney Mintz, the foods we eat, the criteria by which we 
distinguish what is edible from what is not, and what we feel when we 
consume them, are interconnected and contribute to our perception of 
ourselves in relation to others. Thus, people who eat different foods or even 
similar foods but in a different way, are seen as fundamentally different 
and, sometimes, not even human. 32 Recently this "ethnicising" dimension 
of food in Mumbai (and elsewhere) has been the subject of political claims 
rooted in far more ancient historical and social contexts. 

On the subject of ethnicity 

In recent years political movements have emerged in Mumbai supporting 
pureness of identity based on specific regional, linguistic and caste factors. 
These movements have triggered a "de-cosmopolitising" process that 
highlights the increasing value placed on ethnicity. The adoption of the 
term "ethnicity" in social sciences is relatively recent and, as Glazer and 
Moynihan pointed out in their famous mid-1970s study, it is in "one sense 
a term still on the move". 33 It is applicable to "situations and processes in 
which the cultural difference between groups is classified, organised and 
communicated", 34 which derives from the concept of the "ethnic group" 
and means "a linguistic, cultural and territorial unit of some magnitude". 35 
Historically, the concept of the "ethnic group" or "ethnicity" proved 
useful for meeting colonial intellectual and administrative demands. It 
enabled European colonialism to achieve a definition for the various 
subjugated communities that differed from terms like "peoples" or "nations", 
taken to mean subjects of a historical destiny that was long considered a 
European state prerogative, and who were seen to acquire "the right to self- 
determination" from the time of Wilsonian diplomacy. 36 The designation 

31 Pierre Bourdieu, La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 

32 Mintz (1985). 

33 Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, "Why Ethnicity?", Commentary, 58 (1974), 
33-39. 1 am quoting A. L. Epstein, Ethos and Identity: Three Studies in Ethnicity (London: 
Tavistock, 1981), p. 167. 

34 U. Fabietti and F. Remotti (eds.), Dizionario di antropologia (Bologna: Zanichelli 1997), 
p. 271. 

35 Bonte and Izard (1991), p. 321. 

36 At the end of World War I, the US president in office, Woodrow Wilson, gave a speech 

130 Feeding the City 

"ethnic group" in the era of European imperialism was more or less explicitly 
a subordinate status to communities, often meaning they were split up and 
restricted to specific territories. 

In the 1960s, the work of Fredrik Barth, also subsequent to historical 
decolonisation processes, redefined the concepts of ethnicity and ethnic 
groups, restoring them as basic categories that allow social players to decide 
on a personal status and means of identification. Barth argues that ethnicity 
is "a category of ascription whose continuity rests on the perpetuation of 
boundaries and the codification constantly renewed of cultural differences 
between neighbouring groups". 37 The boundary is a physical and symbolic 
place where social interaction between groups is channelled and where the 
sense of identity is perceived. 

Over the last twenty years, in particular for minorities and decolonised 
countries, the terms "ethnicity" and "ethnic group" have acquired new 
meanings, connected to the rediscovery of "identity roots" that colonial 
rule had hidden, blurred, or repressed. Ethnicist movements (in particular 
African- American) appropriated the terms to condemn the socio-economic 
injustice and exploitation that had targeted individual "ethnicities". 
Historical anthropologists highlighted the processes of political and 
economic domination of a number of social groups over others. This led 
several sociologists and anthropologists to identify the use (and abuse) of 
ethnicity as a weapon in the power struggle between variously defined 
groups (in which "ethnic" features considered distinctive can vary quite 
extensively) who are active in the promotion of their own community 
interests and claims to collective rights. 38 Ethnicity thereby acquires a 
competitive significance that alters social reality by reifying the delimitation 
of cultural traits such as language, religion and physiognomy, and rendering 
social divisions unresponsive. Behaviour with ethnic implications cannot 
be deemed mere rational calculation, however, because it also includes an 

to the US Congress acknowledging the validity of the self-determination principle as a 
fundamental element in the new international post-war order. It was the first globally 
positive sanction of a collective right, a "people's" right, able to change state boundaries 
along lines of supposed ethno-national uniformity. In fact, these borders ended up 
stranding some thirty million people on the "wrong side" of the frontier and became the 
harbinger of conflicts that are still to be resolved. See Rene Gallissot, Mondher Kilani and 
Annamaria Rivera (eds.), L'itnbroglio etnico in quattordici parole-chiave (Bari: Dedalo, 2001). 

37 Bonte and Izard (1991), p. 322; see also Fredrik Barth (ed.), Ethnic Groups and Boundaries 
(Oslo: Oslo University Press, 1969). 

38 See Glazer and Moynihan (1974); and Abner Cohen, Custom and Politics in Urban Africa: 
A Study ofHausa Migrants in Yoruba Towns, rev. ed. (London: Routledge, 2004). 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 131 

important emotional component. A mono-faceted approach to the analysis 
of such a dense concept risks reducing its expressive potential to a mere 
trivialisation of the reality it seeks to interpret. 

The plurality of applications of ethnicity-related terminology highlights 
the cultural nature of the evolution that the various players bring about, 
colouring it with different meanings and encompassing complex intra- 
psychic and social interaction processes. 39 This construction can be seen as a 
classification system that allows the population to be separated or grouped 
into specific categories, and is generally rooted in an emotional dimension. 40 
In the Indian debate on the definition of ethnic groups, sociologist Gopa 
Sabharwal described them as: 

. . . socially defined groups based on notions of shared culture which accounts 
for their distinctiveness. These groups are stable and have continuity over 
time since they perpetuate themselves. They also often possess a distinct 
name by which not only do the people of the group recognize themselves 
but are recognized by others as such. The shared cultural components could 
be drawn from among the following elements: region, language, religion, 
caste, sect, tribe, race or some of these in combination. These identities are 
as is evident, affiliations of birth or ascriptive identities. These cultural 
identities thus are those that people are born with and are not acquired or 
achieved. Self-awareness of identities based on these cultural criteria is an 
essential component in describing ethnic identities. 41 

A cornerstone of India ethnicity is the politicisation of language because, 
as Andre Beteille points out, the definition of ethnic identity on the basis 
of sharing a specific language produces both cultural and political effects. 42 
Modern India is organised according to linguistic demarcations that often 
give rise to disputes amongst dominant and minority language groups, like 
the issue of a national standardised language as opposed to various regional 
or state languages within the Indian Union; the choice of which script 
system to use at national level; individual territorial divisions; whether or 
not to recognise/promote bilingualism or multilingualism in contrast with 
the adoption of a lingua franca like English; the characterisation of the 

39 Epstein (1981). 

40 Ibid. 

41 Gopa Sabharwal, Ethnicity and Class: Social Divisions in an Indian City (New Delhi: Oxford 
University Press, 2006), p. 249. 

42 Andre Beteille, Society and Politics in India: Essays in a Comparative Perspective (New Delhi: 
Oxford University Press, 1992). 

132 Feeding the City 

official language of the political class; the tensions between domestic and 
public language; and so on. 43 

Language-based differentiation alone is not sufficient to justify the 
adoption of a renewed sense of "ethnic purity" as the symbolic basis for 
replicating certain social categories, and the question of the creation of the 
Maratha "caste" (explained in Chapter Two) is a prime example. To make 
these differentiating regimes legitimate, a Foucaultian-type governability 
must be introduced. In other words, a governability that can guide human 
conduct by regulating its expression, whose "political language drew on 
the rationalities of modern bio-power regulating health, reproduction, and 
bodies". 44 

It is in this perspective that the study of dietary practices and 
representations of them, even in a political context, may be useful for 
sounding out the less explicit dimension of this bio-power, which also 
feeds on symbols of identity that these practices and representations wish 
to embody. Ethnic groups and ethnicity must be understood as symbolic 
constructions, as the "product of specific historical, social and political 
circumstances", which indicate not a static but a ductile reality, able to bend 
to change according to the circumstances. 45 Through these cultural devices 
a collective definition of the self and the other occurs, which enables groups 
to acquire an internal homogeneity, highlighting the differences between 
them. 46 

Bombay-Mumbai, collector of cultural diversities 

For Salman Rushdie, Bombay epitomises the diversities of India: it's the 
point of convergence for winds that blow from west to east, north to south, 
and vice versa. 47 For my research it became a focal point in the analysis 
of interpretations of cultural diversity. Mumbai, melting pot of peoples, 
languages, religions and cultures, is highly typical of the great cultural 

43 Sabharwal (2006), p. 26. 

44 Thomas Blom Hansen, Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay 
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 218. For more on the governability that 
can guide human conduct, see Michel Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique. Cours au 
college de France, 1978-1979 (Paris: Gallimard-Seuil, 2004), it. trans., Nascita delta biopolitica. 
Corso at College de France, 1978-1979 (Milan: Feltrinelli, 2005), p. 154. 

45 Ugo Fabietti, L'identita etnica. Storia e critica di un concetto equivoco (Rome: NIS, 1995), p. 18. 

46 Ibid. 

47 Sujata Patel and Alice Thoner (eds.), Bombay: Mosaic of Modern Culture (New Delhi: 
Oxford University Press, 1995), p. xxiii. 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 133 

themes that pervade contemporary global thought. It actually seems 
like the most suitable backdrop, not dissimilar to other metropolises, for 
celebrating the diversity that characterises the groups that live there, as well 
as the particular personality the city has acquired through the coexistence 
of these groups. India has always had a composite and pluralist character, 
nurtured by a multitude of different sources: the Vedic period, a fusion 
of Aryan and non- Aryan populations; the rise of the Hindu religion as 
a mosaic of cults, gods and goddesses, and inspirations; the presence of 
tribal peoples; the birth of Buddhism and the Jain religion. Not to mention 
the Bhakti movements of spiritual renewal within Hinduism; Sikhism; 
the arrival of Turko-Iranian peoples and Muslims (with relative differing 
schools of religious thought and exegesis); English colonisation; and 
subsequent colonial liberation movements. 

The Indian subcontinent has therefore always expressed a strong 
syncretic tension that combines an enormous range of regional, music, 
food, language and social traditions. 48 As Das points out, India is home to 
4,635 different communities, most of which have their own cultural traits: 
dress, language, prayer, food, customs, and so on. 49 Its 325 languages rely 
on twenty-five different alphabets, which derive from various linguistic 
families: Indo-Aryan, Tibetan-Burmese, Dravidian, Austro-Asian, 
Andamanese, Semitic, Indo-Iranian, Sino-Tibetan, etc. Most inhabitants 
are bilingual or polyglot and have religious beliefs that over time have 
interwoven the cultural and spiritual traits of various faiths. Thus, united 
India has always been based on interrelations among different spoken and 
written cultural traditions that communities have evolved through history. 
It is precisely this interrelationship that constitutes the country's most 
fruitful legacy. 

Bombay-Mumbai is the collector of this cultural, economic and legal 
heritage, and as such is not immune to negative reactions as seen in the 
recent episodes of group violence that led to bloody clashes between 
Muslims and Hindus in the 1990s and 2000s. This violence is not so much 

48 Clearly this is a summary history; a more detailed reconstruction of India's history is in 
Michelguglielmo Torri, Storia dell'India (Bari: Laterza, 2000). 

49 N. K. Das, "Cultural Diversity, Religious Syncretism and People of India: An 
Anthropological Interpretation", Bangladesh e-Journal of Sociology, 3:2 (2006), available at [accessed 17 July 2012], 
For an interesting picture of India's cultural diversities, see Gurpreet Mahajan, "Indian 
Exceptionalism or Indian Model: Negotiating Cultural Diversity and Minority Rights 
in a Democratic Nation-State", in Multiculturalism in Asia, ed. by Will Kymlicka and 
Baogang He (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 288-313. 

134 Feeding the City 

the result of a longstanding and deep-rooted hatred among different social 
groups (even if they do sometimes claim responsibility for actions whose 
symbolic roots lie in a history of abuse or enduring discrimination), but 
rather a reaction to the state's equality-promoting policies and external 
pressure resulting from global challenges. According to Arundhati Roy, 
there is a direct link between the current global economic structure and the 
birth and rise in India— as in many other poor countries — of a right-wing 
nationalist political class with strong racist and fascist connotations. 50 Roy's 
opinion is shared by sociologist Ashis Nandy in an article on the theme 
of anti-Islamic hatred in contemporary India: "It is the rage of Indians 
who have decultured themselves, seduced by the promises of modernity, 
and who now feel abandoned. With the demise of imperialism, Indian 
modernism— especially that subcategory of it which goes by the name of 
development— has failed to keep these promises". 51 

In this context Muslims are perceived as easy scapegoats. Claims of 
collective rights on grounds of purported cultural differences frequently 
exploit communal hatred, legitimising it as a deeply ingrained, essential 
feature of human nature. In fact, such claims have little or nothing to do 
with an alleged clash of civilisations, but are rather the offshoot of warped 
intra-cultural dynamics of political conflict and social strife. 32 

Rashmi Varma makes an interesting observation that, despite Saskia 
Sassen's argument that Mumbai is one of the cities where the geography of 
international finance is mapped out, the metropolis actually only penetrated 
the global studies panorama after its progressive "provincialisation". 53 
Varma uses this term to denote a process that Arjun Appadurai calls 
"decosmopolitanism" and is reflected in a series of key events in Mumbai's 
recent political and social evolution. This includes the formation of Shiv 
Sena ("Shiva's Army"), a political movement based on the bhumiputra 
("sons of the soil") concept. The Shiv Sena claims broader collective 
rights for the Maratha than those offered to the non-Maratha population. 

50 See Arundhati Roy, "War Is Peace", Outlook India, 29 October 2001, available at http:// [accessed 17 July 2012]; and Arundhati Roy 
and David Barsamian, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile: Conversations with Arundhati 
Roy (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2004). 

51 Ashis Nandy, "The Twilight of Certitudes: Secularism, Hindu Nationalism and Other 
Masks of Deculturation", Postcolonial Studies, 1 (1998), 283-98. 

52 In this case, Arjun Appadurai speaks of "primordialism". 

53 See Sassen (1991); and Klaus Segbers (ed.), The Making of Global City Regions: Johannesburg, 
Mumbai/Bombay, Sao Paulo and Shanghai (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007). 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 135 

The demands are accompanied by a strong Hindutva (Hindu fundamentalist 
and anti-Muslim) inspiration. 54 Varma also stresses the importance of 
exaggerated Hindu nationalism and modification of the Hindu religion 
in Hindutva terms as an underlying ideological strategy for this political 
evolution— or rather devolution. The quest for alleged ethnic purity has 
gradually overshadowed the city's image as the Indian capital of hope 
and diversity. 55 In order to catalyse this process, the neo-racist logic of 
absolute cultural differences — which is to say the irreducible inability to 
communicate among different social groups— has been used deliberately 
to conceal the growing and increasingly less reversible impact of economic 
imbalances. Historian Romila Thapar notes: 

The new Hinduism which is being currently propagated by the Sanghs, 
Parishads and Samajs is an attempt to restructure the indigenous religions 
as a monolithic uniform religion, rather paralleling some of the features 
of Semitic religions. This seems to be a fundamental departure from the 
essentials of what may be called the indigenous Hindu religions. Its form 
is not only alien to the earlier culture of India in many ways, but there is 
also a disturbing uniformity that it seeks to impose on the variety of Hindu 
religions. 56 

Food is precisely the link and key filter between the outside world and 
the body, a daily practice that places humans in systems of significance, 
offers the perfect setting for the explosion of feelings triggered by uniform 
neo-archaic food evocations, which demand ancient, authentic food as the 

54 The term "Hindutva", coined in 1923 by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in his pamphlet 
entitled Hindutva: Wlw is a Hindu?, is composed of the Persian word "Hindu" and the 
Sanskrit suffix "-tva". According to Savarkar it indicates the characteristics of being 
Hindu, of "Hindu-ness". The founding rules of Hindutva see India as the homeland of 
the Hindus, who are defined as "those who recognise India as a sacred homeland". In 
the 1980s and 1990s the Bharatiya Janata Party produced a review of the entire history 
of India in order to outline the characteristics of "true Hindu culture", highlighting 
the features of continuity with the ancient tradition and oppression by Christians and 
Muslims. The Sanskrit texts, especially the Vedas, were taken as the basis of "real Indian- 
ness", excluding all other traditions, for instance Buddhism, those of tribal peoples, and, 
of course, Islam and Christianity, whose presence in India is centuries old. The main 
purpose of this false historical reconstruction— which made use of textbooks, maps, 
images and videos, distributed in schools and on the streets— was to leverage the votes 
of the frustrated lower classes. For more detailed information, see Ethnic and Racial 
Studies, Special Issue: Hindutva Movements in the West: Resurgent Hinduism and the 
Politics of Diaspora, 23:3 (2000). 

55 See Rashmi Varma, "Provincializing the Global City: From Bombay to Mumbai", Social 
Text, 22:4 (2004), 65-89. 

56 Romila Thapar, "Syndicated Moksha?", Seminar, 313 (1985), 14-22. 

136 Feeding the City 

supreme symbol of a single defined identity. 57 There is, in fact, a relationship 
of circular causality between food and identity. When identity is reified, 
and thus fossilised, in search of the paradise lost of its origins, food is also 
re-interpreted, scrutinising the same maps. Norbert Elias argued that there 
was a shift in the threshold of sensitivity, in other words the violence of 
the public sphere shifts to the subject's inner self and left there to implode, 
because— and it seems almost overkill to remember— food always includes 
an imaginary, spiritual, symbolic and social power that is applied according 
to "the principle of incorporation". 58 

This principle has two meanings: psychological and social. The 
psychological significance is seen in the moment of eating something and 
incorporating the qualities of the food. Some researchers use this key of 
interpretation to analyse disgust for certain foods and preference for others; 
in other words they start from the primordial fear of being contaminated by 
pathogenic organisms or the fear of acquiring the characteristics of the food 
eaten. This theory has two aspects: one that has a health-hygiene matrix 
and is based on the modern concept of illness, whereby certain foods are 
consumed on the basis of their nutritional characteristics; the other refers 
to the magical-religious thought that James Frazer classified according to 
two laws of sympathetic magic, one of similarity and one of contact. 59 The 
law of contact posits that when contact is made with a particular food, its 
essence is absorbed. This is particularly applicable to the Indian context 
when pure food, sattvic, is consumed with its ability to act as the channel 
for spiritual growth, but also to the consumption of rajasic or tamasic (for 
example, meat) food, which inhibits that growth. It is believed that, if 
certain animals are eaten, their physical or mental traits may be acquired 
by the consumer, so particular caution is required. 

The second variation of the incorporation principle implies that when 
food is eaten, its cultural connotations are acquired: the social rules and 
cooking techniques connected to it and the appropriate manners required 
with guests while the food is consumed. In short, all the sense elements that 

57 Jean-Pierre Poulain, Sociologies de Valimentation, les mangeurs et Vespace social alimentaire 
(Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002). 

58 Norbert Elias, Uber den Prozess dcr Zivilisation. I. Wandlungen des Verhaltens in den 
Weltlichen Oberschichten des Abendlandes (Basel: Verlag Haus zum Falken, 1939). See also 
Claude Fischler, L'Homnivore (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1990). 

59 James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (New York: 
Macmillan, 1922). 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 137 

make food "sociable". 60 Humans identify themselves and others through a 
classification system enacted for feeding themselves. 61 In a context where 
this sort of food diversity reigns, is it possible that this potentially implosive 
incorporation is guided by fear of the Other? One possible answer comes 
again from Fischler, who explains that to understand the contemporary 
eater, it is necessary to consider the eternal eater who, throughout history, 
has always had to deal with shortage of food. 62 Managing scarcity of food 
for centuries has programmed our bodies to respond to certain stimuli 
almost automatically. Although food is now available in abundance in 
contemporary affluent societies and, to some extent, even in most of the 
less affluent, the suspicion and the need arise to reject the superfluous. The 
anguish applies both to the excesses of modernity and to the choice of food, 
a choice inherent to the omnivore's condition. 63 

However, there is not only the option of refusal: responses can also be 
hybrid or of appropriation, as we have previously seen. Depending on the 
choice made, both the nature of social groupings and forms of individual 
actions are delineated, especially in big cities. This is because— beyond the 
specificities of urban life that every civilisation has developed in response to 
diversity of climate, religion, customs, etc— urban areas generally develop 
from the need to import food from outside, a necessity that changes in 
relation to the characteristics of the organisation of society itself. 64 

In the great metropolises, the supermarket supply chain requires 
standardisation of foodstuffs. This can be seen in the progressive 

60 By "sociability" I mean the creative way in which humans put into practice acquired 
social and cultural resolutions, called "sociality". Sociability demands a choice in the use 
of forms of communication and exchange with other individuals. 

61 See Fischler (1990). 

62 A chapter in Paolo Sorcinelli's book has the significant title "I mali della fame e i segni 
del corpo" [the evils of hunger and the body's signs]. See Paolo Sorcinelli, Gli ittdiani e 
il cibo. Dalla polenta ai cracker (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 1999). Much has been written 
on hunger, among others see Piero Camporesi, II paese della fame (Milan: Garzanti, 2000), 
and Sharman Apt Russell, Hunger: An Unnatural History (New York: Perseus, 2006). 
In addition, in a relatively recent Indian novel, the protagonist describes the signs of 
hunger on the bodies of the destitute with these words: "A rich man's body is like a 
premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank. 'Ours' is different. My father's spine 
was a knotted rope, the kind that women use in villages to pull water from wells; the 
clavicle curved around his neck in high relief, like a dog's collar; cuts and nicks and scars, 
like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below 
his hip bones into his buttocks. The story of a poor man's life is written on his body, in a 
sharp pen". See Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (New York: Free Press, 2008), p. 22. 

63 Elias (1939). 

64 The reference is to Henri Pirenne's classic Les villes du moyen-dge. Essai d'histoire economique 
et sociale (Brussels: Lamertin, 1927). 

238 Feeding the City 

restriction of offering to a few main brands, in constant food stocks (and 
thus preservation in large quantities), in the need to guarantee consequent 
food safety and also mass production of food, which limits genetic variety 
in favour of production efficiency. In Mumbai, citizens are still mostly 
supplied with food by independent stores, because big supermarket chains 
are usually located in shopping centres out in the suburbs. Unlike most 
first world cities, food in Mumbai is still closely tied to street sale, in small 
markets— a supply system that is still pre-modern to some extent. 65 Despite 
the diversity of food supply chains, there is tension between the globalised 
dimension of food flows, and therefore meaning, and the city's specific 
local dimension. This tension is also expressed by the social movements 
which— also due to the disappearance of the traditional forms of work 
that accompanied the birth and development of industry— now express, 
above all, a reactive resistance of identity type, a possible carrier of new 
forms of democracy, but also of outbreaks of xenophobia and religious 

So it seems that there is close correspondence between the expression of 
violence and food anguish. As Elias writes, "changes in eating behaviour 
are part of a broader change of human attitudes and sensibilities". 66 The 
incorporation of food, which is the "founder of collective identity and, 
similarly, of otherness", thus becomes a vehicle for reactive responses to 
globalisation, because to ensure the maintenance of a culturally-oriented 
food system, the collaboration between similars and their distinction from 
the Other are required. 67 

This tension between polar opposites, between "us" and "them", 
clearly expressed and reproduced by food consumption, is leveraged 
by processes of universalisation and particularisation, homogenisation 
and differentiation, integration and fragmentation, juxtaposition and 
cultural syncretism. These dichotomous positions seem to fit in well with 
the gastronomic order of food rules that presupposes the endorsement 
or prohibition of certain classes of foods. If these rules, absorbed at a 
subconscious level and reproduced socially as a natural order, are violated, 
the ensuing offence suspends the sense of community based on shared 

65 For an overview of forms of urban food procurement, see Carolyn Steel, Hungry City: 
Hoiv Food Shapes our Lives (London: Chatto & Windus, 2008). 

66 Elias (1939). 

67 Fischler (1990), it. trans., L'onnivoro. II piacere di mangiare nella storia e nella scienza (Milan: 
Mondatori, 1992), p. 52. 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 139 

identities. Consequently punishment may— or will— be demanded for 
those who move towards the Other or who, precisely because of this offence, 
are perceived and stigmatised as the Other, guilty of passing the threshold 
of repugnance. The offending subject is then qualified as contaminated, as 
disgusting, and therefore is to be cast out from the sphere of humanity to 
which they thought they belonged. 

Mumbai: relations, form, body 

Mumbai's networks are an interesting way to trace back the idea of 
ethnicity inspired by the city's fabric of diverse citizens. In the light of 
Barth's supposition that a shared culture is generated by the process of 
maintaining boundaries, Mumbai appears potentially united — since 
it is crossed constantly by markers of ethnic plurality like language, 
clothing and food — and yet eternally divided because those boundaries 
simultaneously break down and pulverise the city. The two processes 
are dialectically opposed, but have a theoretical synthesis in Michael M. 
J. Fischer's definition of ethnicity as: "a part of the self that is often quite 
puzzling to the individual, something over which he or she is not in control. 
Insofar as it is a deeply rooted emotional component of identity, it is often 
transmitted less through cognitive language or learning (to which sociology 
has almost entirely restricted itself) than through processes analogous to 
the dreaming and transferences of psychoanalytic encounters". 68 

Perhaps this is the dimension that is reflected in "private ethnicity" — 
the manner in which the family structure and intimate relations initiate 
codes, languages, expressions and physiognomies. I would call it a sort 
of "cultural genetics" that "feeds the entire communication of cultural 
difference". 69 Social and collective articulation of this "intimate" meaning 
of the concept of ethnicity interprets the ethnic difference as "a complex, 
ongoing negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge 
in moments of historical transformation": 70 a process in which the private 
and public dimension permeate and drive each other. 

68 George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An 
Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 
p. 173. 

69 Matilde Callari Galli, Mauro Ceruti and Telmo Pievani, Pensare la diversita. Per 
un'educazione alia complessita umana (Rome, Meltemi, 1998), p. 179. 

70 Bhabha (1994), p. 2. 

140 Feeding the City 

The point therefore is not so much to make an inventory of the "ethnic" 
traits of the various components of Mumbai's metropolitan universe, 
but rather to direct the topic back to two important starting points for 
an anthropological analysis of the city: ethno-historical imagination and 
bio-political governance. Indeed, if the construction of ethnicity is mostly 
cultural, it is equally true that once imagined it becomes very significant for 
the groups that claim it as a defining trait of their social or even personal 

Bombay can be viewed from many perspectives. According to the British, 
the city was a symbol of progress and prosperity, the gateway to India, 
a home away from home, an offshoot of England. The Marathi-speaking 
peoples— who were the majority in Bombay but who always occupied 
inferior roles and places compared to the city's other minorities— had a 
totally different perspective. For them Bombay was in Maharashtra but not 
part of it: 71 it was a foreign body, a city to be admired for its architecture, 
for study and business, a catalyst for social change, but nonetheless deeply 
alien. Rooted in this were the tensions that developed in this city, which 
Rushdie had seen as a celebration of "hybridity, impurity, intermingling, 
the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of 
human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, songs, movies". 72 Rushdie also said 
that Bombay "rejoices in mongrelisation, fears the absolutism of the Pure" 
and represents the new that penetrates the world, while in Mumbai the 
reality of "mixed tradition is replaced by the fantasy of purity". 73 

The change of name claimed the power of ethnicity in the wake of 
an ethno-historical review process. As we saw in Chapter One, the 
change came from a desire to make the city Maharashtra again, both 
symbolically and culturally. Bhabha sees "The 'right' to signify from the 
periphery of authorised power and privilege does not depend on the 
persistence of tradition; it is resourced by the power of tradition to be 
re-inscribed through the conditions and contradictoriness that attend 
upon the lives of those who are 'in the minority'". 74 The doubt arises as to 
whether the community of Marathi speakers, who always speak for the 
majority in Bombay, was actually able to perceive itself as a "minority". 

71 Patel and Thoner (1995), p. 4. 

72 Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 (New York: Viking, 
1991), p. 394. He was speaking of The Satanic Verses (New York: Viking, 1988). 

73 Ibid., pp. 394 and 76. 

74 Bhabha (1994), p. 3. 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 141 

How did it come about that a social group that had always had the power 
of numbers in the city was pervaded by a desire to reclaim space through 
"the borderline engagements of cultural difference" anchored to a specific 
original identity or a particular tradition inherited or represented as 
such? 73 By virtue of which processes was this city (which grew thanks to 
its ability to "embark multiplicity without endangering its own identity") 
able to dispose knowingly of its own cosmopolitan metropolis essence? 76 

For a better understanding of the development of these socio-political 
dynamics, I would like to reconstruct a shift that begins with the terrible 
Hindu-Muslim clashes of 1992 and 1993— in the wake of the destruction of 
Ayodhya's Babri Masjid— and which are considered to be the most serious 
post-Partition episode of ethnic conflict in Mumbai. The Hindu-Muslim 
conflict dates back to 1528, when the Mughal Sultan Babur ordered the 
construction of a mosque on the precise spot where the Hindu population 
believed a temple had been erected in homage to their god, Rama. In 1853 
clashes erupted at the site, so much so that a few years later the British 
colonial authorities built a fence around it, allowing Muslims access to the 
building's inner courtyard and Hindus access to the outer courtyard. In 1984, 
the Hindu fundamentalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) founded a 
committee to liberate Rama's birthplace and build a temple in his honour. 
Later, Lai Krishna Advani, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), took 
over leadership of the campaign. The tone of the debate became increasingly 
heated until, in 1991, the BJP won the elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh, 
where Ayodhya is located. The following year, the mosque was rased by a 
crowd of 150,000 militants, triggering clashes between Hindus and Muslims 
across the country. Bombay, like Delhi and Hyderabad, was in the midst of 
this terrible violence that caused the death of an estimated 3,000 people. 

The clashes recurred in March 1993 when a series of bombs placed in 
strategic areas of the city killed and maimed hundreds. The responsibility 
for the attacks was claimed by the D-Company criminal organisation, led 
by the Bombay mafia boss Dawood Ibrahim, and was explained as an act of 
retaliation for the massacre of hundreds of Bombay Muslims in the previous 
year. Since then, there has been repeated fighting and bloodshed across the 
country. 77 These actions were the result of ideologies that deliberately sought 

75 Ibid. 

76 Francesco Remotti, Contro Videntita (Rome: Laterza, 1996), p. 21. 

77 In February 2002 a train full of Hindu pilgrims burst into flames in Godhra, Gujarat. 
Muslims were accused of starting the fire and thus became the target of a pogrom, 

142 Feeding the City 

to cause rifts among the Hindu and Muslim communities, and which may 
be considered an expression of a "virtually worldwide genocidal impulse 
towards minorities". 78 They have been described by Jim Masselos as the 
outcome of a "polarization of attitudes among communal lines". 79 

In a process that began in the 1960s and strengthened in the 1980s, the 
communities residing in Bombay were categorised on the basis of religious 
affiliation. Hindus were considered Indian, whereas Muslims were 
characterised to be outsiders, non-Indians, and therefore to be excluded. 
The symbolic and political construction of these two opposite categories 
was due not only to the Shiv Sena's strategy but also to the way in which 
Bombay developed in the 1960s to 1980s, and the social and economic 
changes that affected the city during that period. The ethnic conflict revealed 
the fragility of tacit social norms that defined daily interactions between 
the city's residents. 80 The unifying energy of popular neighbourhoods — 
which were a main factor in Bombay's open and cosmopolitan character- 
dissolved. Violence left the city prey to the bare form of its urban body, a 
conglomeration of villages separated by relationships destroyed beyond 
repair by the blood spilled by their inhabitants. 

Bombay's social networks of urban proletariat had long supported the 
principle of collective participation in city life; throughout the period in 
which industry was the principal employer of this social class, they had 
been an important stabilising force in the coexistence of castes, ethnicities 
and languages. The industrial labour crisis progressively eroded the 

which killed some 2,000 people and led to the evacuation of 50,000 persons. In 2006, 
the explosion of seven bombs planted on the Mumbai urban rail network left 186 dead 
and seven wounded. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by Al Qaeda Jammu and 
Kashmir. Although there was no certainty that the different events in various parts of 
the country were related, violence continued until November 2008 when terrorists in 
Mumbai left 190 dead and 300 wounded, and a month later when police discovered 
two bombs— fortunately unexploded— planted on the city's railway line. Sadly, as we 
were translating this book into English, a new attack took place on 13 July 2011 that 
killed twenty-one people and injured 140. See Ramachandra Guha, India After Gandhi: 
The History of the World's Largest Democracy (London: Macmillan, 2007); Acyuta Yagnik 
and Suchitra Sheth, The Shaping of Modern Gujarat: Plurality, Hindutva, and Beyond 
(New Delhi: Penguin, 2005). 

78 Arjun Appadurai, "New Logics of Violence", Seminar, 503 (2001), available at http://www. [accessed 19 July 2012], 

79 Jim Masselos, The City in Action: Bombay Struggles for Power (New Delhi: Oxford 
University Press, 2007), p. 364. In current Indian political language, "communalism" is a 
generic term for political strategies hinged on belonging to a community or caste, and in 
some cases the local requirements prevail over national. 

80 Ibid. 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 143 

interdependence among the different segments of the weaker population, 
in part due to ties with class solidarity and due to the simple aspirations 
for social improvement that drive a migrant proletariat. These widespread 
solidarities were replaced by particularist affiliations and a progressive 
social and political ethnicisation, whose potential for disruption was 
revealed when an important symbolic crisis incited daily social conflict 
into an extended collective violence. 

More than ever, the body became the mirror of ethnic affiliations 
and intake of culturally-oriented food acquired a symbolic and political 
significance. 81 Food preferences are an expression of social self -identification 
because: "food is a world experience; the human being is constructed 
through eating". 82 Nonetheless, the food chosen for nourishment is also 
the product of territorial policies that govern its admissibility, availability 
and desirability. It is no coincidence that the Shiv Sena has urged young 
Marathas to become street-food vendors. In this way they not only 
promote vegetarian Hindu food but also occupy urban land physically and 
symbolically, integrating business with an active street politics. Moreover, 
Hindu activists have repeatedly attacked udupi restaurants — typical of 
southern India but widely present in Mumbai— because they represent the 
growing importance of Malayalam migration. These restaurants are also 
publicly associated with the danger of communist infiltration, since the 
Kerala Communist Party has many supporters. 

Yet food in Mumbai today, above all in fashionable restaurants, also 
offers a type of conviviality and eating that differs from Hindu traditions. It 
is "sociable" food that often "speaks" English, with people meeting in smart 
places where men and women eat dinner together, where the middle class 
shows off its status symbols — all of which sits uncomfortably with the rustic 
rural values expressed by Maratha mythology. 83 Yet even as middle-class 
Mumbaites appear to be gradually embracing cosmopolitanism, they 
nonetheless do so without challenging their need for status demarcation. 

81 Fischler (1990). 

82 Eleonora Fiorani, Selvaggio e domestico. Tra antropologia, ecologia ed estetica (Padua: Muzzio, 
1993), p. 17. 

83 Here a paradox in Indian nationalist policy seems to be established on the Maratha 
perception of the body. While one of Britain's key instruments of colonial consolidation 
process was the classification, enumeration, and discipline of the Indian body— seen 
as dirty, soft, brittle and effeminate— the Shiv Sena's nationalist, differentiating politics 
re-cast the Mumbaite's body, demanding a clean, masculine body for men who want 
to be in the movement. See Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions in 
Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). 

144 Feeding the City 

And for the bulk of the urban population, the effort to define boundaries 
and separate communities seems to have become the true leitmotiv of 
how they perceive their city's globalisation: an obsessive drive to make 
their food, their bodies, and the city itself adhere to a concept of purity 
that is truly at odds with the history of Bombay. The city is thus forced 
to redefine its social identity in terms of opposites, and to adopt a logic 
that separates and discriminates, includes and excludes. This dialectic has 
always been present in the city but over the past forty years has come to 
express an urgency of identity that also involves a politicisation of the body, 
its needs and its pleasures, expressed and reinforced through the adoption 
of distinctive eating and social practices. 84 

On the edge of cultural movements 

Against this background of political unrest, food could be seen as one of 
the "flows" analysed by Appadurai, which enables an interpretation of 
the global cultural landscape. 85 Appadurai has identified five dimensions 
with which to describe the disjunctions between economy, culture 
and politics— ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes 
and ideoscapes. 86 Here it is possible to add a sixth "flow": foodscapes. 87 
In this perspective, food can be detached from its "territoriality" and the 

84 Identity claims of this nature can perhaps be read like the type of cannibalism of the 
Other mentioned by Francesco Remotti. Here cannibalism is a metaphor that implies 
opposition and accord in two societies— Maratha and non-Maratha— to the extent that 
one is the other's food; yet at the same time, this metaphor envisions food and related 
practices as a ritual that perpetuates and renews daily choices of self-representation, 
claiming each group's entitlement to aspiration and even cultural monopoly and 
elimination of what is different. See Remotti (1996), p. 77. See also W. Arens, The Man- 
Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980). 

85 Appadurai (1996). 

86 Ibid., p. 46. "Ethnoscapes" specifically refers to the increasing mobility of persons, 
although this does not mean that there are no stable communities (rather, these are 
increasingly crossed by flows of people on the move); "finanscapes" bind increasingly 
fluid relationships between flows of money, politics, investment, and capital; 

"technoscapes" refers to the rapid diffusion of technology; "ideoscapes" are concatenated 
images and ideas that propose a narrative of diaspora thanks to electronic information 
diffusion; and finally "mediascapes" examine the electronic diffusion of ideological 
and political images. These offer to the viewer a world and a narrative where signs and 
meanings of different cultural contexts are mixed, and which— thanks to the effect of 
imagination— encourage construction of imaginary worlds and narration of possible 
lives of the Other. 

87 See Alessandra Guigoni (ed.), Foodscapes. Stilt, mode e culture del cibo oggi (Monza: 
Polimetrica, 2004). 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 145 

value attributed to it at the local level. Food expresses a bifocal vision 
because it is both a material flow (ingredients and raw materials used in meal 
preparation) and an intangible flow (feelings of identity, nostalgia, identity, 
claims, membership, etc evoked by food). 88 This does not necessarily lead 
to cultural homogenisation because, when there is a transfer of cultural 
material from one place to another, it is reworked in accordance with the 
notions of local societies, who indigenise the transferred materials and 
practices. Pasta is an example. It is a dish that Italians consider to be their 
national glory, but during its widespread global diffusion it has been 
radically modified to meet local tastes. 89 Food's experiential traits change 
over time and transformation processes do not modify only the use but 
also the significance, related precisely to context meanings. 

Adopting the perspective of a "foodscape" enriches a political debate 
that is more topical than ever: trying to find solutions to the need 
to protect different "local cuisines". Today the aim to safeguard the 
authenticity of products and flavours, while being aware of inevitable taste 
transformations related to contemporary social changes, involves small 
producers, venues, and institutions at the international level, hugging 
borders to define new biological and cultural food maps. The Manifesto 
on the Future of Food comes in the wake of this discussion, and proposes 
the international promotion of food's ecological sustainability. 90 The 
document condemns the inability of industrial agriculture to safeguard the 
planet's ecosystem adequately, because it has authorised the replacement 
of biodiversity with monocultures whose control is completely in the 
hands of a few global companies. Global-local tension in the modern food 
panorama turns into an increasingly clear-cut political conflict. The issue 
hinges on the difficulties encountered by indigenous and local cultures in 
obtaining sufficient guarantees not only for the availability of food, but 
also for public health, food and nutritional quality, and the preservation 
of traditional forms of subsistence tied to specific cultural identities. 
It is interesting that the International Commission for the Future of Food 
and Agriculture decided to emphasise how much agrobiodiversity depends 

88 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972). The dual focus of modernity is the 
ability of social players to see near and far, the local and global, simultaneously. 

89 Silvano Serventi and Francoise Sabban, La pasta. Storia e cultura di nn cibo universale 
(Rome: Laterza, 2000). 

90 International Commission for the Future of Food and Agriculture, Manifesto on the Future of 
Food (Florence: Arsia, 2006), available at 
File/Commiss%20Intern%20Futuro%20Cibo/cibo_ing.pdf [accessed 19 July 2012]. 

146 Feeding the City 

on cultural diversity, sustaining the rights of communities to preserve their 
identity for future generations. 91 

The contemporary food landscape therefore reveals a precise sensitivity 
to the development of what Watson and Caldwell call the "cultural politics 
of food". 92 They are a type of politics that will integrate the collective, 
communal and institutional sphere with the personal and private. This 
politico-cultural synergy, which draws inspiration from local traditions and 
culture to build distinctive economies characterising territorial areas, is the 
tangible testimony of the dabbawala experience. Nor is it a coincidence that 
the dabbawalas are also activists at international level for the cultural politics 
of sustainable food. They regularly attend international seminars on these 
topics, including Terra Madre, a meeting held in Turin every two years. 

Food as a gift, food as a marketable commodity 

Delivering food for nearly 130 years is not a "culturally neutral" act, but 
a cultural phenomenon that is historically and symbolically in tune with 
Mumbai's transformation into a global city. In addition to being an essential 
solution to the demand for quick meals in a metropolis whose schedule 
is cadenced by the working hours of the service industry, the dabbawala 
method is, implicitly, a way of ensuring the survival of the emotional and 
symbolic value of food prepared by loved ones, a "familiar food". In this 
sense "familiar food", insofar as it is able to enhance and maintain the 
importance of a certain type of taste that the eater does not want to give 
up, is one of the modern symbolic elements that contributes to the global 
discourse on the value of taste that assumes universal, almost cosmological, 
traits. Taste becomes not only a sensory experience, but a strong sense 
element capable of guiding choices in daily life and relationships. It can be 
seen as a positive result of globalisation, a process that transforms not only 
the world's economic structures, but also its ethical and epistemological 

91 The International Commission for the Future of Food and Agriculture was established in 
2003 by Claudio Martini, President of Tuscany Regional Authority, and Vandana Shiva, 
Executive Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, 
Navdanya. It consists of a group of prominent activists, academics, scientists, politicians 
and farmers from the north and south of Italy who work to make agricultural and food 
systems models socially and ecologically more sustainable. 

92 James L. Watson and Melissa L. Caldwell (eds.), The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating: 
A Reader (London: Blackwell, 2005). 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 147 

The food delivered by dabbawalas can be interpreted as a "gift" to the 
extent that it is able to integrate the economic dimension of barter with a 
complex phenomenology of a symbolic, religious, aesthetic, affective and 
legal order. As Marcel Mauss has argued, this food can be considered a 
'total social fact" because it sets in motion "the totality of society and its 
institutions". 93 In the case of the dabbawalas, the value of the gift of food is 
expressed through the archaic conception that draws its inspiration from 
the recognised scriptures of classical Indian law. These laws state that: 

The thing that is given produces its rewards in this life and in the next. Here 
in this life, it automatically engenders for the giver the same thing as itself: it 
is not lost, it reproduces itself; in the next life, one finds the same thing, only 
it has increased. Food given is the food that in this world will return to the 
giver; it is food, the same food that he will find in the other world. And it is 
still food, the same food that he will find in the series of his reincarnations. 
[...]. It is in the nature of food to be shared out. Not to share it with other is 
'to kill its essence,' it is to destroy it both for oneself and for others. 94 

These moral and legal foundations of the Hindu tradition are part of 
the spiritual architecture dictated by devotion to Varkari Sampradaya. 
This movement explicitly considers the gift of food as the essence 
of egalitarianism and of serving the Other, which is considered the 
equivalent of serving God. The fact of being an act of devotion capable of 
generating karmic rewards, the gift of food (whose delivery is ultimately 
a good approximation) serves as an ethical constant, capable of powering 
a scheme that generates adaptive behaviours and allows dabbawalas to 
adapt to change in their life and work, reproducing effective collective 
survival strategies from one generation to the next. 95 

However, giving is not a disinterested action. 96 For the dabbawala the 
'gift-delivery (for a fee)" image constitutes a privileged symbolic resource 

93 Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and the Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (London: 
Routledge, 1990). 

94 Ibid., pp. 72-73. Marcel Mauss refers to the Code ofManu and the 23"' Book of Mahabharata, 
the great Indian epic poem. 

95 I refer to the concept of "perpetual memory", a mechanism that perpetuates a society's 
fundamental behaviour patterns from one era to another. Moral values, religious beliefs 
and social structures are components of a perpetual memory that becomes the individual 
capacity for remembering collectively. I think this concept is useful when placed within 
a dynamic analysis in which a diachronic historic dimension can be associated with a 
synchronic and cultural dimension. See Kirti Narayan Chaudhuri, Asia before Europe: 
Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1991). 

96 In the preface to the English edition of Marcel Mauss, Mary Douglas explains the non- 
gratuity of the gift. 

148 Feeding the City 

for preserving a mutually beneficial alliance with Mumbai. The interest of 
the dabbawalas, i.e. "the individual search after what is useful", is collateral 
to the actual gift principle. 97 To understand this dynamic and also the 
'counter-gift", it is useful to refer to Alain Caille's third paradigm which sees 
the gift as a promoter of social relations. 98 If people are to live to "produce 
society", as Maurice Godelier argues, then the dabbawalas — through the 
relations within their group and with customers — generate an extended 
community that draws its strength from the continuous circle of giving, 
receiving and reciprocating. 99 This allows dabbawalas and customers to gain 
equally from the fulfilment of mutual needs. This implicit dialogue, which 
is the expression of a shared culture, overcomes "the opposition between 
the individual and the group, seeing people as members of a wider tangible 
circle" and conceives the gift not as "an economic system but as a social 
system of interpersonal relationships". 100 

Considering the food delivered by the dabbawalas to be an articulation of 
Mauss's gift theory does not mean "branding the gift" like old ethnographic 
models, which saw Other societies as more likely to give. 101 Paraphrasing 
Marco Aime: 

Macro models [...] risk making reality too rigid. All of us, we 'people of 
the Market' and they 'people who Give', are makers of actions that can 

97 Mauss (1990), p. 96. 

98 Alain Caille, Anthropologic du don. Le tiers paradigmc (Paris: Desclee de Brouwer, 1994), it. 
trans. II terzo paradigma. Antropologia filosofica del dono (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1998), 
pp. 8-11. The three paradigms referred to are: "utilitarian", which sees the person as 
engaged in pursuing self-interest; "holistic", which tries to explain all actions, whether 
collective or individual, as manifestations of the influence exerted by social totality 
on individuals (part of the current paradigm of social sciences such as functionalism, 
structuralism and culturalism); the "gift", which attempts to overcome the limits of 
individualism and holism, and interprets the gift as the element that allows people to 
create society, namely as the former of covenants. The latter paradigm, proposed and 
supported by the founders of MAUSS (Mouvement Anti-utilitarist dans les Sciences 
Sociales), including Alain Caille and Jacques T. Godbout, proposes to assign a value to 
the link between goods and services in producing social reports. 

99 Maurice Godelier, L'enigme du don (Paris: Fayard, 1996). 

100 Jacques T. Godbout, L'esprit du don (Paris: Editions la decouverte, 1992), it. trans. 
Lo spirito del dono (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2002), pp. 30 and 24. 

101 Marco Aime, "Introduzione. Del dono e, in particolare, dell'obbligo di ricambiare i 
regali", in Marcel Mauss, Saggio sul dono. Forma e motivo dello scambio nelle societa arcaiche 
(Turin: Einaudi 2002), pp. i-xxviii (p. vii). See also Paolo Sibilla, La sostanza e la forma. 
In troduzione all' an tropologia econom ica (Turin: Utet, 1996); Richard R. Wilk and Lisa Cliggett, 
Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology (Boulder, CO: Westview 
Press, 1996); Edoardo Grendi (ed.), L'antropologia economica (Turin: Einaudi, 1972); 
and Marco Aime, La casa di nessuno. I mercati in Africa occidentale (Turin: Bollati 
Boringhieri, 2002). 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 149 

be economic or convivial, without being monolithically condemned to a 
given datum. It is therefore possible to live in the Market, but without being 
subject to or exploited by it every moment of our existence. At the same time, 
we live in a given society and respond to specific cultural rules, but this does 
not mean that there are no options outside those boundaries. 102 

This food is certainly not outside the "neutral and impersonal" monetary 
mesh, nor is it just the inheritance of those who live outside of the market, 
as the dabbawalas themselves reflect so accurately. It is food that is part of 
supply and demand, capable of nourishing a class of workers who live 
in daily contact with Mumbai's economic and social transformations. It is 
food transported by entrepreneurs who make use of diverse contractual 
forms governed by their capacity to deliver several meals in a public 
context increasingly structured by the politicisation of bodies and tastes. 103 

If it is true that there is a historically new essence in the contemporary 
globalisation process, then the element that distinguishes it most from the 
preceding Fordist paradigm is perhaps the fact that the standardisation 
of production practices is accompanied by an increasing diversity of the 
symbolic worlds that interpret these practices. This diversity is ensured 
primarily by the close interdependence of social and cultural norms that 
support the forms of associative life and incorporate economic practices 
that give rise to specific labour organisations in specific territories. 104 Social 
relations, understood as expressive relationships whose intensity increases 
along with the growing complexity of labour division, are catalysts of this 
interdependence. This intensity depends greatly on the vigour of the sense 
systems that prevail in a given social corpus. Whether they are systems 
of kinship or expressions of personal ties of an affective nature, these 
relationships constitute "the deep psychic substance of the symbolic world 
of people who become subjects and not objects of economic relations and 
monetary economics". 105 

Culture— understood as a process that incessantly reproduces and 
rearranges materiality, beliefs, family systems, forms of learning, and 
related systems of meaning— reacts and interacts with market categories by 
taking advantage of shared moral and ethical codes. The specific case of the 

102 Aime, La casa di nessuno (2002), p. 158. 

103 Alfredo Salsano speaks of "polygamous forms of barter" . See Alfredo Salsano, II dono nel 
mondo dell'utile (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2008). 

104 For economic and social practices, and cultural standards, see Giulio Sapelli, Antropologia 
della globalizzazione (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2002). 

105 Ibid., p. 115. 

150 Feeding the City 

dabbawalas presents an economic activity embedded in a moral perspective 
that is both real and ideal, utilitarian and mutualistic— the empirical proof 
that "culture is not separable from economics, which is part of it and its 
rationality". 106 

Towards a unified cosmology of taste 

This case-study of Mumbai's dabbawalas illustrates how food practices, 
and the social relations that sustain them, contain traces of a far broader 
phenomenon— the development, in the unfolding of globalisation, of 
a unified cosmology of taste that transcends borders and incorporates 
differences. Rules associated with eating always reflect a general notion 
of the universe, a cosmology. The adjective unitary here does not imply 
the gradual standardisation of taste in a global food economy, but rather 
points out the need for a truly global discussion on the role of nutrition 
in a global context. 107 In order to lend deeper meaning to the concept of 
"global food", some semiotic common ground is essential, and the notion 
of a shared cosmology is key to the project of a common social and cultural 
order. It also concurs with the formation and diffusion of universally 
accepted ethics. 

Keying this "planetary discourse on food" into a discussion of an 
ethical nature can help safeguard its shared, open-ended approach, thus 
marking its distance from the imposed (and suffered) discourses that have 
historically shaped global taste in the previous stages of globalisation. 
This discussion is vital to the way local nutritional practices interact with 
each other and reinforce social practices and meanings that are rapidly 
projected on a global scale: it is, in fact, the dialectic interaction of different 
communities that brings about a common cosmology of taste. 

The dabbawalas' food delivery service reflects the drive to give shape 
and meaning to such a shared and "permeable" set of beliefs and practices. 

106 Jack Goody goes on to state that the concept of culture cannot be used as a "residual 
category, a blanket term for the non-economic aspects of social life [...]. But we need 
to do so [analyse} not in terms of a global concept of culture but of the consideration 
of particular socio-cultural factors seen as endogenous to the system". See Jack Goody, 
Capitalism and Modernity: The Great Debate (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), p. 48, my 

107 Examples include the many movements active at a global level, offering diverse 
management of agricultural resources and different food distribution. See Raj Patel, 
Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for The World Food System (New York: Melville 
House, 2008). 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 151 

A cosmology that is at once both the true expression and the most apt 
description of the city's diversity, a compass to navigate the complex 
plots woven into the fabric of a city like Mumbai. According to Eugene 
Minkowski the term "cosmology" should be understood as "an aesthetic 
and gestural happening" in which taste acts as the life-giving vehicle of 
meaning. Because to taste means disengaging "from the matter of our 
daily perceptions and preoccupations [...] taking on a singular attitude 
towards life and the environment" and lingering in this pleasure procures 
a particular attitude towards the surrounding world, a primordial attitude 
that is "an indispensable link between the inner and the outer world". 108 

It is interesting to try to understand Mumbai's specific contribution on 
the evolution of this link between the individual and societal perceptions of 
taste. This city is one of those global urban macro-regions whose diversity 
seems to mimic the wider world. 109 At the same time, this diversity makes 
it a privileged scenario for the unfolding of India's specific way of thinking 
about food (see Chapter Two). This versatility, which reverberates in further 
layers of meaning, is also the reason for the difficulties that inevitably will 
be encountered in attempting to find a unified perspective for a theme as 
full of nuances and meanings as that of food. Thinking of an Indian food 
means taking into account its commercialisation, distribution and eating 
practices in large cities; yet it also means considering agricultural practices, 
livestock farming techniques and livelihoods in rural contexts. There is also 
the role of the ancient scriptures and the voice of the spiritual masters to be 
considered, not to mention global logic and the ways in which such logic is 
absorbed and processed by Indian nationals residing in India and abroad. 

Recovering a unifying principle in all this diversity is far from simple, but 
it is useful to do so to avoid falling into the trap of obligatory standardisation, 
of convergence towards a "global culture", a definition too vague to have 
empirical value. The idea of a unified cosmology of taste does not end at a 
"global culture", but actually probes the possibility (and perhaps the need) 
of harmonising cultural specificities in a shared sensitivity to the protection 
of food integrity and eating practices. This serves to restore all the ethical, 
moral, spiritual and relational meanings of food, which otherwise has been 
reduced to its mere ingredients by a certain gastronomic trend (which is 
also a constituent element of the contemporary foodscape). 

108 Minkowski (1936), pp. 187-88. 

109 Segbers (2007). 

152 Feeding the City 

Contemporary Indian thinking offers some important indications on 
the specific contribution that linguistics can offer for the development 
of a unified cosmology of taste. Indian Humanist Attipat Krishnaswami 
Ramanujan has argued that the ideal way to access the social and cultural 
context of a country is the grammatical study of its language. In many 
Hindu texts, grammar represents an indispensable model for thought. 110 
Anthropologist Alessandro Duranti expresses similar beliefs when he 
says "writing is a powerful form of classification, because it recognises 
some distinctions and ignores others". 111 It is possible to talk of the 
"power of grammatical traditions" because the transcription of a language 
and consequently the rules underpinning its logic constitute clues on 
how its speakers think. 112 It is in this perspective that language— through 
the arbitrary taxonomies it creates — contributes to constructing culture, 
and that knowledge of a language allows us to understand its speaker's 
values. 113 

Similarly, a fine understanding of the system of values and meanings 
of a specific food tradition can be achieved by interpreting its "grammars 
of taste". Anthropologist Ravindra Khare identified three main cultural 
patterns in Hindu India, with three different corresponding gastrosemantics. 
The first, "ontological and experiential", is related to cultural assumptions 
constrained within an earthly and material sphere, like the classification of 
food, the taboos, the intrinsic qualities of foods, daily lunch models, and 
dietary restrictions. The second, "transactional and therapeutic", addresses 
how to maintain a healthy, beneficial union of body and soul (including the 
prevention and treatment of possible illness through diet and medicine), 
recognising a relationship of reciprocity between the intrinsic properties of 
the food and the person who consumes it. The third is the "criticism of the 
world", showing the limits of the preceding patterns because it addresses 
reality or the illusion of the world, and the role played by food in increasing 
spiritual knowledge, interior contemplation, and the achievement of 
liberation. 114 

110 McKim Marriot (ed.) ; India through Hindu Categories (New Delhi: Thousand Oaks; 
London: Sage, 1992). 

111 A. Duranti, Antropologia del linguaggio (Rome: Meltemi, 2000), p. 116. 

112 Ibid., p. 117. 

113 G. R. Cardona, Laforesta di piume. Manuale di etnoscienza (Rome: Laterza, 1985). 

114 Ravindra S. Khare, "Introduction", The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of 
Hindus and Buddhists, ed. by Ravindra S. Khare (Albany: State University of New York 
Press, 1992), pp. 1-26 (pp. 7-9). 

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 153 

Beyond individual specificities, all three "grammars of taste" give 
order to the world and its future, foreshadow healing and happiness, and 
standardise paths of self-realisation and salvation. Each of these arguments 
develops specific practices, expressed in the Brahman-soul principle in the 
first gastrosemantics, respecting the food rituals organised according to the 
stages of physical and social life in the second, and pursuing the fasting, 
renunciation and austerity of custom of the third. But this division, which 
is so apparent in its written form, is not so clear-cut in Hindu life today, 
with all three gastrosemantics incorporated into everyday life and learned 
during childhood and later social interaction. 115 

It is the density of meanings that this conception of taste and food 
contains that make nutrition one of the fields where the greatest number 
of political strategies are advanced today, such as demands made in the 
name of Hindu identity. This relationship between identity policies and 
nutrition is evident during the recurrent (and increasingly common) 
food crises brought about by rising prices in basic commodities. 116 For 
example, in 1998 the 5,000% increase in the price of onions became the key 
element in a populist political platform. The price of onions acted as an 
emblem of the difficulty for the poorer classes to ensure a decent diet in 
a globalised economy. 117 So food, the underpinning of human existence, 
is now a symbolic site for political activists, and has been used to justify 
ideologies that are also based on the violent separation of religious-ethnic 
groups. The rhetoric of scarcity and the struggle to satisfy the needs of 
'their" citizens (co-ethnic, co-religious, etc) has been co-opted for political 
gain. Like any type of fundamentalism, Hindutva ideology tries to replace 

115 Ibid. 

116 The FAO summit held in Rome on 3-5 June 2008, emphasised the problem of the rapid, 
uncontrolled increase in food prices today. Although both developing and developed 
countries are affected, the consequences are far more devastating in the former. The 
increase in price of raw materials is linked to: business cycles in key markets; climate 
variability; conflicts in producer countries; exchange rate fluctuations; speculation; 
dumping. Other factors are the increase in prices of agricultural commodities, especially 
rice and wheat, which began in 2007 due to the contraction of cereals exports by major 
producing countries to cope with growing domestic demand; increased meat consumption 
in China and India, which in turn triggered a major need for cereals to feed livestock; 
and the growing demand for ethanol as a fuel for vehicles, which raised corn prices 
and gradually decreased water for crops. See the website; and 
Joachim von Braun, The World Food Situation: New Driving Forces and Aquired Actions 
(Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2007), available at [accessed 19 July 2012]. 

117 Vandana Shiva, India Divided: Diversity and Democracy Under Attack (New York: Seven 
Stories Press, 2005); and Patel (2008). 

154 Feeding the City 

pluralism of ideas and practices with a focus on separation, although such 
a monoculture exists only in the minds of its proponents. 

I believe, however, that the great wealth that Indian thinking can offer 
lies in its enduring attention to ecological diversity, cultural pluralism— 
an intellectual tendency that is not dichotomous because it addresses the 
unity of all things — and, finally, the intellectual flexibility that is directly 
proportional to the complex social relations that characterise the Indian 
way of life. 118 The resulting plurality of social roles has a strong impact 
on the nature of actual cognitive processes and allows the development 
of infinite cultural expressions. Nonetheless, despite existing differences, 
food continues to be a component of expression, as well as an integrating 
identity, for the many faces of today's global citizens. 

118 I drew inspiration from the work of Rose Laub Coser, who links modern intellectual 
flexibility and mental operations to the complexity of social relations. In urban contexts, 
where the individual is in contact with greater diversity, interaction helps to reflect on 
the plurality of worlds in the context. See Rose Laub Coser, In Defense of Modernity: Role 
Complexity and Individual Autonomy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991). 

Appendix: Theory and Practice 
for an Ethnography of 

The purpose of this appendix is to highlight the concepts and guidelines 
that enabled my field research and the subsequent drafting of this work. 
First I analyse the meaning of cultural diversity, a crucial theoretical tool 
for understanding the dynamics of Mumbai's current situation. Second, I 
propose a methodological interpretation of the concept of culture that I 
found useful in addressing research challenges. The nature of this approach, 
conceived some years ago, is not only theoretical but also empirical; in my 
view, it is extremely useful in seeking to understand the cultural situation 
of the Other. Finally, I will explain the method used for my fieldwork, 
for gathering testimonies and digital filming— the latter being a form of 
documentation that allowed me to create a file of faces, expressions and 
non-verbal communication (for example, gestures and body language) 
that would not be possible just in writing. 

Cultural diversity: a polysemic concept 

If cultural diversity is viewed only from one perspective, then the very 
concept of its enlightening and scientific capacities will be misrepresented. 
A semantic analysis of its definition will link it back to the various ways in 
which culture guides human action. The heterogenesis of cultural goals— in 
other words the principle whereby human actions in a cultural framework 
may achieve different results from those originally defined— organises 
forms of life, social coexistence, production, exchange, and spirituality 

DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0031.05 

156 Feeding the City 

in various parts of the world, all of which appear, to use the words of 
Ulf Hannerz, as a "monument to human creativity". 1 

The notion of cultural diversity was initially conceptualised by 
nineteenth-century Romantic particularism. Stemming from a reaction to 
eighteenth-century Enlightenment beliefs in the universality of knowledge 
and behaviour, particularism regarded national cultures as distinct entities. 
Consequently, each culture was to be perceived in its essence or geist. 2 
These two initial definitions fostered the development of two different 
anthropological schools of thought: evolutionist and culturalist. While the 
former sought to find a code common to all cultures, placing them on an 
evolutionary path where the realisation of mutual objectives varied only 
in the time factor, culturalists believed that each culture was unique and 
that existing differences should be identified, since each reference system 
was associated with the context in which it evolved. The two approaches, 
the former basically European (British) and the latter American, served 
different needs. Evolutionist ethnocentrism met the practical needs of 
colonial and imperialist rule; 3 American cultural relativism, which emerged 
after racial prejudice came into question, established that differences 
among human groups are due to their culture and evolution through 
history, and cannot be attributed to race. 4 The theme of cultural diversity 
highlights a topic that is fundamental— I would go so far as to say it is 
one of the discipline's foundations— for anthropology. It has always been 
the case that, during their work, anthropologists have had to address the 
importance of diversity on two planes. One brought to light differences 
enabling perception of the expressions that culture assumes at different 
times in history; the other using cultural diversity to contribute to the 

1 Ulf Hannerz, Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places (London: Routledge, 1996), 
p. 93. 

2 Annamaria Rivera, "Cultura", in L'imbroglio etnico in quattordici parole-chiave, ed. by 
Rene Gallissot, Mondher Kilani and Annamaria Rivera (Bari: Dedalo, 2001), pp. 75-106 
(pp. 83-85). 

3 The reference is to evolutionary anthropology, which was established and developed 
mainly in Great Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. For more on the history 
of anthropological thought, see in particular Alan Barnard, History and Theory in 
Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). 

4 After starting a series of ethnographic studies on North American Indian tribes, Franz 
Boas abandoned the principle of a single culture in favour of the idea of plural cultures 
influenced by multiple historical paths. Boas theorised that history does not follow a 
rigid pattern of evolution but is built by an infinite, overlapping series of paths. He also 
took pains to demonstrate the non-scientificity of the notion of a link between mental 
and physical traits, a notion implicit in the concept of "race". For a discussion on the two 
schools, see Ugo Fabietti, Storia dell'antropologia (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1991). 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 157 

construction of differentiation theories. These concepts took two main 
directions. Firstly, there was a universalist approach, in which societies 
and cultures were classified according to a universal scale of values and 
in this perspective non-European cultures were initially seen (especially 
in the nineteenth century) as less "evolved", and needing to aim for the 
conditions of white civilisation. The differentialist orientation, however, 
considers cultural differences as natural, biological and intrinsic. 5 These 
two positions are not necessarily antithetical and they often interact, for 
instance in the recent forms of racism that manage to combine presumed 
respect for differences with the idea of a clear-cut separation of cultures. 6 

As a consequence, diversity refers to the condition of someone or 
something "perceived" as different, in other words it refers to the difference 
that can emerge in appearance, language, manner, conditions, ideas, 
opinions, tastes, etc. By extending the meaning of diversity, it is possible to 
embrace multiplicity and a variety of social forms to the point of attributing 
them with negative aspects like malice and cruelty, which may be ascribed 
to the person who brings conflict or friction, or does not conform. Diversity, 
therefore, appears to have enormous potential (it brings debate, stimulates 
reflection and learning, brings better self-awareness and so on), but at the 
same time, barely beneath the surface, it contains that age-old human fear 
of anything foreign, to the point of their being considered dangerous or 
even evil. 7 

5 The theories put forward were developed by Pierre-Andre Taguieff, La Force du 
prejudge. Essai sur le racisme et ses doubles (Paris: La Decouverte; Armillaire, 1988). 
On the origins of racial theories, see Walter Demel, Wie die Chinesen gelb wurden. Ein 
Beitrag zur Friihgeschichte der Rassentheorien (Bamberg: Forderverein Forschungsstiftung 
Uberseegeschichte, 1993). 

6 A classic condition is described by Alessandro Dal Lago in relation to the culturalisation 
or ethnicisation of migrants, a practice intended to exclude them from accessing universal 
rights at work and in public and institutional life. The migrant's culture of origin is 
seen as homogeneous and monolithic, contrasting with the culture of destination, also 
compact and monadic. This cultural particularism seems to be incompatible with legal- 
political universalism, in which everyone, migrant or not, is entitled to certain rights 
regardless of their origin or belonging. See Alessandro Dal Lago, Non-Persone. L'esclusione 
dei migranti in una societa globale (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1999), p. 171. Gerd Baumann makes 
reference to the same assumption when he explains how, on an expressive and political 
level, two apparently contradictory expressions of culture can co-exist: the "serial 
process" (evolutionary) and the "existentialist". See Gerd Baumann, The Multicultural 
Riddle: Rethinking National, Ethnic and Religious Identities (London: Routledge, 1999). 

7 Hans Mayer analyses, through literary sources, three emblematic figures of "jarring" 
diversity: women, Jews and homosexuals. Mayer starts from the premise that middle- 
class enlightenment has failed because formal equality before the law is not consolidated 
by material equality in life opportunities. Enlightenment refuses to consider isolated 

158 Feeding the City 

The aversion to diversity was also progressively rationalised into 
structured forms of prejudice and discrimination, like racism, a phenomenon 
that has taken on various forms over the centuries. As Annamaria Rivera 
points out, racism is definable as: 

. . . the set of ideologies, statements, conducts and practices centred around 
the idea that certain morphological traits, biological heritage or, more strictly 
speaking, the genetic makeup of an individual, group or population define 
their psychology, behaviour, culture and personality, and that on the basis 
of this kind of presumed determination, hierarchies may be constructed 
among human groups that might justify unequal relationships, domination, 
exclusion, segregation and persecution. 8 

Nevertheless, biological or genetic determinism and ensuing nineteenth-century 
ideas of inequality amongst races cannot, alone, delimit the modern context of 
the racism debate. The accent today falls on cultural or ethnic differences and 
defines culture in a way that is very close to (or may even replace) race. This 
is an almost natural aspect based on unchangeable categories, a sort of datum 
of origin that can determine the pureness of an individual. The logic of racism 
amplifies the perception of cultural differences, sorting human beings into 
hierarchies according to these qualities, which are systematically redefined 
by whoever leads the hierarchy. There are no parameters defined a priori to 
radicalise the differences since, as Albert Memmi says, racism is "an accusation 
of variable geometry", changing its features at its own convenience. 9 

The considerations made by the anthropological world over recent decades 
aim to highlight the arbitrary construction of cultural dynamics . Precisely because 
culture is a process-based concept of numerous specificities, anthropologists 
suggest it should be defined in the plural— not as a single, compact, regimented 
'culture", but as various, dissimilar and historicised "cultures". While the 
'different" worlds studied by anthropologists were distant and irremediably 
in another place, the problem of defining cultural universes was, paradoxically, 

subjectivity, because even diversity must be shared in a group. This group is based on 
apparent human regularity that does not take into account the inequality that may exist 
in individuality. The rock on which enlightenment shatters is as follows. Does humanity 
consist of men and women, physical and mental complexions of equal value or can 
the monsters (diversities) that are part of it enjoy the same rights as a standardised 
community? See Hans Mayer, Aupenseitcr (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1975). 

8 Annamaria Rivera, "Neorazzismo", in L'imbroglio etnico in quattordici parole-chiave, ed. by 
Rene Gallissot, Mondher Kilani and Annamaria Rivera (Bari: Dedalo, 2001), pp. 279-309 
(pp. 294-95). 

9 Albert Memmi, II razzismo (Genoa: Costa e Nolan, 1989), quoted in ibid., p. 296. 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 159 

more difficult from a practical standpoint, but less so in an analytical sense. 10 
The "Other" was seen as something distant from daily reality, defined by its 
remoteness, detachment and exoticism. Now the forms of hearing, seeing, 
feeling and representing that were once detached from us have become 
those of our neighbours, the passenger on the bus, the colleague, the school 
mate. Clifford Geertz writes that this proximity requires a readjustment of 
our rhetorical habits, which does not mean cultural standardisation so much 
as a review of the gnoseological parameters of ethnocentrism, a tendency 
that has been analysed in a dual perspective. 11 One is anthropological and 
rational, which in practice preserves the integrity of cultural reproduction 
processes; the other is philosophical and pragmatic, with an outlook that 
reinforces the sense of belonging. 12 

Conversely, if cultural diversity is to revise the parameters of knowledge 
of the Other, it must be acknowledged as an element of the social corpus in 
which we live, which is not always a huge cosmopolitan city. Moreover, at 
the precise moment when we shift our gaze (a difficult but inevitable action 
in ethnography), we can also identify cultural diversity in an intra-cultural 
dimension, above all in ourselves. Martha Nussbaum highlights how a clash 
is occurring in many contemporary nations between people who want to 
live with those different from themselves in a context of mutual respect, and 
those who seek to protect themselves within a homogeneous ethnic and 
religious group. In a Gandhi-inspired conclusion, Nussbaum states that 
ultimately the battle for democracy is fought inside each individual, between 
a desire to dominate and annihilate the Other, and the choice of equality and 
compassion as (vulnerable) foundations for cohabitation on equal footing. 13 

10 Clifford Geertz, "The Uses of Diversity", in Tanner Lectures on Human Values, ed. by Sterling 
M. McMurrin, vol. 7 (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1986), pp. 253-75. 

11 Ibid. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to consider our own group and culture as inherently 
superior and, consequently, to judge other cultures according to reference schemas derived 
from our own cultural context. Ethnocentrism considers the customs of one culture more 
appropriate and humanly authentic compared to customs of other groups, and reveals an 
unbalanced approach to evaluation and classification. It designates a universal tendency 
found in the names many populations ("mankind", "people", etc) give themselves and in 
the routine practice of creating boundaries and distinctions between groups. 

12 Claude Levi-Strauss's thoughts on ethnocentrism, expressed to UNESCO representatives 
in 1984, are well known. He said that in order for cultures not to dissolve into one another, 
they must maintain a degree of resistance and ethnocentrism that allows loyalty to the 
values of the group to be safeguarded, enhancing internal cohesion. The speech followed 
an earlier work on the topic entitled Race and History, which UNESCO requested from 
the anthropologist in the 1950s. 

13 Martha C. Nussbaum, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Tuture 
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). 

160 Feeding the City 

Cultural diversity and political issues 

Cultural diversity has been addressed here with reference to including 
otherness in the institutional and organisational sphere. From this 
perspective, the concept expresses its polysemic aspect to the full since it 
incorporates different meanings, depending on which players make use 
of it. Themes include identity and gender, the role of ethnic and religious 
minorities in society, the citizenship of migrants, the rights of second 
generation immigrants, etc. Despite having an array of meanings, the 
term "diversity" evokes the differences in cultural practices, preferences 
and values typical of groups that "cohabit the same space". 14 It also now 
subsumes the political-regulatory practices that aim to secure recognition 
and respect of these differences. 15 The emphasis on cohabiting the same 
space underscores the importance that reflections on diversity attribute 
to place, a physical space, and also virtual reality (the symbolic space 
promoted by modern information and communication technologies, of 
which the Internet is perhaps the strongest avatar), which seems to swallow 
up the mental scenarios of social interaction. Place is thus the material 
expression of the construction of social and cultural approximations. It is 
the keystone of individual and collective identity, a foundation on which to 
erect a sense of belonging and identification. 16 It is no coincidence that the 
theme of diversity is extensively applied in so-called "multiculturalism", a 

14 Enzo Colombo, Le societa multiculturali (Rome: Carocci, 2002). For a more recent 
reflection, see Enzo Colombo and Giovanni Semi (eds.), Multiculturalismo quotidiano. 
La pratica delta differenza (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2007). The term "diversity" found wide 
application in US business strategies. Originally "diversity management" was designed 
to ensure equal employment opportunities for women and the disabled; now corporate 
law also provides for the protection of ethnic minorities. See Luca Visconti, "Diversity 
management e lavoro straniero: vantaggio competitivo o cerimonia?", in Diversity 
management e societa multiculturale. Teorie e prassi, ed. by Luigi Mauri and Luca Visconti 
(Milan: Franco Angeli, 2004), pp. 11-30 (p. 16). 

15 See, for example, Ida Castiglioni, Dal multiculturalismo al diversity management. Una ricerca 
empirica sulla definizione e sulla misura delta competenza inter cultur ale nei servizi sanitari e 
sociali di Milano e delta sua provincia (Milan: Provincia di Milano, 2008), available at http:// 
diversity.pdf [accessed 30 July 2012]. The text emphasizes how "diversity is an 
organisational application of various inclusion policies, based on a broad concept of 
culture that embraces diversity of gender, nationality, local belonging, physical ability, 
generation, and role". 

16 On the relationship between space and culture, see Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson 
"Beyond 'Culture': Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference", Cultural Anthropology, 

7:1 (1992), 6-32. 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 161 

political strategy for managing inter-ethnic relations that aims to achieve 
reinforcement and respect of cultural differences. 

Multiculturalism was defined in the mid-1980s and gradually 
established itself as a new ideology, first in the United States and then 
in Europe. Its first elaboration dates back to the advent of the so-called 
'question of difference", a difference that would be able to produce a new 
social identity. It was actually in the 1960s that western society began to 
demand a greater sensitivity and recognition of differences in gender 
and age, to act as catalysts for the appearance of new collective subjects. 
This protest soon joined forces with accusations of imperialist leanings 
perceived in the dominant— western— culture. There was a progressive 
bonding with the ethnic and nationalistic demands inherent to the historical 
decolonisation processes, although often under the apparently universalist 
aegis of Marxist-Leninist ideology. The consequences of decolonisation 
included ever-increasing migratory flows that shifted active populations 
from former colonies to their previous metropolitan territories. Countries 
once characterised chiefly by emigration (as were virtually all European 
imperialist states) became destinations for immigrants of extremely varied 
ethnic and national origins. These societies thus showed an increasing 
resemblance to the ancient settlement colonies that later became "multi- 
ethnic societies". 

The major cities in these countries became the heart of a debate on the 
coexistence of cultures, which in Europe— at least initially — rooted itself in 
internationalist and third-world rhetoric. In the US, Canada and Australia, 
however, it was inspired by a critical revaluation of the countries' past as 
colonies that developed from the exploitation or extermination of other 
peoples or minorities. India was perhaps the only part of what was then 
called the "Third World" to develop its own ideology and multiculturalist 
idiom quickly. Indeed, to some extent it was ahead of the times. The 
emerging "global cities" were the inevitable flipside of these collective 
representations, precisely because cohabitation, affection and alienation 
intensify in confined spaces, taking for granted a redefinition of role and 
belonging, not to mention the development of non-violent coexistence 
practices between strangers and different types of persons. The spread 
of new terminology indicated willingness and commitment to providing 
responses to the changes under way. 

Multicultural ideology developed in the US following a crisis in 
the American assimilationist model, whose most powerful metaphor is 

162 Feeding the City 

probably that of the "melting pot", a crucible, symbolising the hope for 
a fusion of different cultures, with the scope of generating a new culture 
to take their place. 17 Although the term itself was not in common use until 
the twentieth century, in as early as 1782 the French immigrant J. Hector 
St John de Crevecoeur conveyed the idea that the future of America would 
lie in creating a new civilisation, the expression of a fusion of all races. 18 The 
"melting pot" concept, however, also had a subtly political dimension since 
it proposed an assimilationist-type acculturation process. The idea was 
that all differences could be traced back to the specific cultural legacy of 
the place of origin of the immigrants, which would have to be forsaken in 
the name of cultural standardisation epitomised by the image of the white, 
Christian, English-speaking American citizen. 

After World War II, the widening gap between the standard of living 
and the actual enjoyment of civil and social rights in the various ethnic 
and "racial" communities resident in the US (in particular between the 
African-Americans and the others, especially the so-called White Anglo- 
Saxon Protestants) triggered clashes that came increasingly to the public 
eye. The attention of the world's media to these conflicts was accentuated 
by the new response awakening in the country's progressive elite, inspired 
by the emerging political awareness of the decolonisation process in non- 
whites. This awareness led to the development of the civil rights movement, 
whose heroes and representatives became outstanding personalities in the 
African- American communities, but there was also strong participation by 
liberal whites, and in particular the youth who later formed the American 
New Left. 

Alongside these claims based on the ideology of equality, promoted 
by the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, an 

17 The term "melting pot" originates from Israel Zangwill's play, The Melting Pot, written 
in 1909 and staged with great success in several major American cities. Its protagonist 
David often uses the expression "melting pot" in the play, for instance in defining 
America as "God's crucible, the great melting pot where all the races of Europe are 
melting and re-forming". See Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot (Charleston: Biblio Bazaar, 

18 In the third letter of his pamphlet, Letters From an American Farmer, de Crevecoeur 
actually poses the problem of American identity and provides his own reply: "What 
then is the American, this new man? [...] He has become an American by being received 
in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all races are melted into a new 
race of man, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world" 
(my italics). J. Hector St John de Crevecoeur, Letters From an American Farmer (New York: 
Fox, Duffield, 1904), available at 
[accessed 30 July 2012], 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 163 

approach developed whereby the crucial issue was deemed to be that of 
reaching the "perfect union" advocated by the founding fathers of the 
American republic. More radical movements arose, however, criticising this 
universalist perspective and demanding that differences and peculiarities be 
appreciated, putting forward the recognition of collective — "community" — 
rights as the reference category. Minority groups, especially from the 1970s 
onwards (the most obvious US references here are the black Muslims, 
Malcolm X, as well as more radical feminists) became increasingly overt 
in demanding formal recognition of specific identity differences: women, 
youth, African-Americans, homosexuals, etc. 19 They refused to adapt 
to predetermined social models built around sanctioning of specific 
superiorities that were intended to reproduce structures to oppress whites, 
the elderly, men, heterosexuals, etc. 

Multiculturalist reformation thinking in the 1980s and 1990s condensed 
some of these examples— initially suggested in a far more radical and 
violent key— by using first the mosaic metaphor (the vision embraced by 
African-American radicals who wanted a rigid separation of communities 
to ensure the collective identity of each group was respected), then that 
of the salad bowl. 20 The latter was a more inclusive perspective that put a 
significant distance between itself and the melting pot ideal, stating that 
in the same way a salad is made up of many different ingredients, the US 
comprised different cultures, so while they might be mixed together in a 
single context (the salad bowl), none lost their individuality or their flavour. 
This principle stated that all minorities present on the territory could 
claim collective rights, condemn discriminatory stereotypes and demand 
a constant monitoring of how the various reference communities were 
depicted in the media. Dedicated strategies were developed for overcoming 

19 Each of these groups has also developed its own approach to cultural diversity. On the 
issue of male-female differences, I should mention the work of anthropologist Francoise 
Heritier, who begins with the premise that social gender distinction is a constant factor 
in human history and tries to understand its invisible, symbolic roots. According 
to Heritier, gender categories and representations of the sexual person are cultural 
constructions, but they all start from a given biological reproduction distinction. While 
the physiological description may be required for understanding diversity, this does not 
mean that this data is translated in a unique, universal manner. Indeed, anthropological 
practice has shown how this translation varies. Heritier' s definition of the oriented, 
although not hierarchical, conceptual relationship between masculine and feminine 
is "gender value differential". See Francoise Heritier, Masculin-Feminin. La pensee de la 
difference (Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 1996). 

20 See Nathan Glazer, We Are All Multiculturalists Now (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University 
Press, 1998). 

164 Feeding the City 

inequalities deriving from discrimination of identity, for instance so-called 
"positive discrimination" or "affirmative action". 21 

The pressure to reinforce collective minority identities posed major 
new issues, which had an impact on the political choices that each state 
had to implement. Pressure coming from the fringes of society required 
rethinking of processes for the interpretation and designation of the sense 
of collective life. In particular, Enlightenment-inspired universalism, based 
on the unifying principles of equality and fraternity, collided increasingly 
with the adjustment of particularism of identity for minority subjects. 
A crisis also arose in the notion of citizenship, or rather the equality of 
citizens in their relationship with the state. Above all, at the end of the Cold 
War, in a world that suddenly appeared smaller and more connected, but 
also more multipolar and interdependent, a widespread need emerged to 
safeguard local identities. This can be defined as a turning point in western 
gnoseological ethnocentrism and was itself part of an epistemological 
turning point that penetrated social sciences, 22 and showed how values, 
knowledge and truth are fundamentally relative since they depend on the 
cultural context that generates them. 23 

In this way, the ability to define the universal fundamentals that can 
represent an active reference for ethical and political decisions is called into 
question. Here we see one of the greatest threats attributed to ideologies 
built on cultural diversity, as they become political management tools 
for inter-ethnic relations. The defence of diversity at all costs turns into 
complicated disunion, cultural boundaries become distinct, and a forced 
promotion of each social group's unique traits seeks to establish access to 
rights and protections based on cultural distinctions within the community. 
Paradoxically, these policies reduce diversity by stereotyping the 

21 See Mondher Kilani, "L'ideologia dell'esclusione. Note su alcuni concetti-chiave", in 
L'imbroglio etnico in quattordici parole-chiave, ed. by Rene Gallissot, Mondher Kilani and 
Annamaria Rivera (Bari: Dedalo, 2001), pp. 9-36 (pp. 12-20). 

22 The turning point was preannounced in the early 1900s by Husserl, in the field of 
philosophy, by Weber and Durkheim in sociology, by Boas and Kroeber in anthropology, 
and Saussure and Sapir in linguistics. 

23 I refer in particular to Geertz's interpretive anthropology. Geertz argues the need to treat 
cultural phenomena as systems of meaning and symbols which must be interpreted 
in a dual perspective: on one hand, the local context in which they are produced, on 
the other in relation to the researcher's mental conditioning. Interpretive studies of 
culture seek to identify the diversity of ways in which humans shape their existence. 
This epistemological breakthrough towards the meaning plays off two subjectivities in 
ethnographic research and processing of reality: the investigated and the investigator. 
See Clifford Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973). 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 165 

community and are often promoted by the social players themselves and 
the media, who create particularisms based on examples that are neither 
non partisan nor neutral. 24 It is expedient for social players to identify 
themselves in a concept of culture that brings moments of totality, unity 
and integrity— in Wim van Binsbergen's words, "to turn subjectively the 
fragmentation, disintegration and performativity of modern experience 
into unity, coherence and authenticity". 25 Culture becomes a promotional 
commodity that is able to sell differences because it takes for granted that 
an absolute difference exists and consequently inaugurates descriptions 
like "the clash of civilisations", "the clash of cultures", "ancestral tribalism" 
and "the culturally congenital poverty of peoples". 

The unease caused by economic inequity, disproportionate access to 
raw materials and essentials like food and water compounds the spectre of 
allegedly invincible cultural diversity between one group and another. In this 
way, cultural diversity, contrary to the status it is afforded in anthropology, 
would paradoxically legitimise the reduction of complex forms of social 
coexistence into institutionalised structures of separation and division. 26 
This tension results in endless contradictions and an insidious antagonism 
that often brings on violence. In times of recession and destabilisation 
of daily routine, this irrational attitude to cultural diversity immediately 
finds fertile ground for growth since it puts the idea of diversity back into 
'reassuring patterns of our classification system", restoring to diversity its 
meaning of "not conforming to what is familiar" . 27 Instinct does not allow 
dealing with others by recognition, dialogue or curiosity, but rather by 
suspicion, anxiety and ostracism. The attitude in the community does not 

24 Ugo Fabietti, "Diversita delle culture e disagio della contemporaneita", I Quaderni del 
CREAM, 9 (2009), available at [accessed 
30 July 2012]. 

25 Wim M. J. van Binsbergen, "Cultures Do Not Exist: Exploding Self-Evidences in The 
Investigation of Interculturality", Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy, 13 (1999), 37-144, 
available at 
260.pdf ?sequence=l [accessed 30 July 2012]. The article is based on the inaugural speech 
delivered by van Binsbergen when he accepted the Chair of Intercultural Philosophy 
at the Faculty of Philosophy, Rotterdam Erasmus University, January 1999. See also 
Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 

26 See Marco Aime, Eccessi di culture (Turin: Einaudi, 2004). On the relationship between 
economic inequality and cultural diversity Walter Benn Michaels's work is illuminating, 
with its affirmation that cultural diversity and related identity issues are used to mask 
economic and class rifts in American society. See Walter Benn Michaels, Tlie Trouble with 
Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (New York: Metropolitan, 2006). 

27 Fabietti (2009). 

166 Feeding the City 

refer only to the notion of a western world hopelessly compromised by 
guilt for its colonial conquests, but also to a hypostasised idea of minorities, 
colonised subjects and victims of exploitation who are denied any chance 
of power except through violent rebellion. These overlapping attitudes are 
like a hall of mirrors, in which the highly emotive, biased images reflect 
repeatedly, driving use and abuse of cultural differences for political ends. 28 

A methodological interpretation of culture 

In the text I used the word "culture" several times. Despite the exasperatingly 
self-evident and obvious way the word is used in public discourse, which 
Marc Auge sees as an ethnological datum in itself, it is useful to highlight that 
culture is a profoundly complex abstract construction that is essentially the 
outcome of an invention. 29 Culture creates collective and patterns that are 
reproduced through the linguistic forms of signification. These forms are 
not a representation of culture, but a tool for understanding the rationale 
of its construction, because for every cultural trait that defines a linguistic 
form, there are others that extend their reach beyond the confines marked 
by the representation itself. 30 In the case of my ethnographic material, the 
data refers to cultural meanings that take into account the whole debate 
surrounding this tricky concept. Some anthropologists believe that the use 
of culture as a heuristic category raises more questions than answers, and 

28 This is culturalism, namely the propensity to define humans not as makers of culture 
but as products of it, and to describe conflicts related to the economic, legislative and 
social sphere on the basis of cultural difference. Charles Taylor's theory is central to 
criticism aimed at multiculturalism as a perspective that encourages this exaltation 
of cultural differences. Taylor believed that the principle of coexistence could not be 
mutual exclusion and fragmentation of social groups; on the contrary, there should 
be the presence of equal democratic institutions allowing citizens complete realisation 
under the umbrella of universal rights that safeguard cultural individuality. See Amy 
Gutmann (ed.), Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton, NJ: 
Princeton University Press, 1994). 

29 Marc Auge is discussed by Denys Cuche, La notion de culture dans les sciences sociales (Paris: 
Editions La Decouverte, 2001). See also Francesco Remotti, Cultura. Dalla complessita 
all'impoverimento (Rome: Laterza, 2011). The invention of culture is concomitant with 
the invention of the Other; see Mondher Kilani, L'Invention de I'autre. Essais stir le discotirs 
anthropologique (Paris: Payot et Rivages, 1994). On the invention of culture, see Roy 
Wagner, The Invention of Culture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981). On the 
construction of culture, see van Binsbergen (1999). 

30 I draw inspiration from the exhibition L'immagine emerge dall' intersezione delle pieghe 
[the image emerges where the folds intersect] by the artist Barbara De Ponti, who 
exhibited her work in a group show called "Simmetria personale" at Bollate's Fabbrica 
Borroni, 2008. 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 167 

therefore should be set aside. I believe that in so doing, we would fail to 
allow the ambiguity and ingenuousness concealed in the development of 
cultural anthropology to come to light. 31 

Culture in the anthropological sense has no classifying or descriptive 
intent: it stands as the logic that allows the essence and basis of distinctions 
to be understood. 32 There are three main characteristics in culture: it 
is learned, shared and has a highly symbolic nature. 33 In the course of their 
existence, humans learn the wide range of expressions that actually make 
them human. Throughout their lives they learn to speak, to move and 
to think of other human beings. 34 This learning process requires strong 
cultural flexibility: in order to stay alive itself as a system of signification 
and decoding of the complexity of human experience, it must renew from 
one generation to the next. Jack Goody argues that: 

human societies consist of interlocking chains of generations that both 
transmit and innovate and human cultures consist of chains of interlocking 
communications; innovation would be impossible if language remained 
substantially the same over time, enabling inter- and intra-generational 
communications to take place. And communication necessarily involves a 
level of understanding the other, so that the new is almost always, in a sense, 
the transformation of the old, carrying along the 'traces'. 35 

31 Cuche (2001). 

32 Francesco Remotti, "Cultura", in Enciclopedia delle Scienze Sociali, vol. 2 (Rome: Istituto 
Enciclopedico Italiano, 1992), pp. 641-60. 

33 I consulted Piero Vereni's very useful website and I am grateful to him for making his 
lectures and teaching material available to everyone. See 
[accessed 30 July 2012]. 

34 The body translates the different eras and societies, and can therefore be regarded as a 
kind of cultural filter. We can say that the body shakes off its natural condition to appear 
as a product of culture and at the same time as a producer of culture. Marcel Mauss 
describes this process through the adoption of "body' techniques", i.e. knowledge 
that grows within the body itself. With this concept, Mauss wanted to highlight that 
behaviour like sexuality, eating, gestures long considered innate are not natural but 
acquired. Thomas Csordas developed Mauss' theory and those of Merleau-Ponty and 
Bourdieu, and invites scholars to flank anthropology of the body with an anthropology 
from the body: a way to rethink anthropology's main theoretical instrument, culture 
and, as a consequence, its methodologies and aims. For Csordas, culture is built inter- 
subjectively by individuals through inter-corporeal experience. See Marcel Mauss, 
Esquisse d'une theorie generate de la magie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1902); 
Thomas J. Csordas, "Incorporazione e fenomenologia culturale", Annuario di Antropologia, 
3 (2003), 19-42; Ivo Quaranta, "Thomas Csordas: il paradigma dell'incorporazione", in 
Discorsi sugli uomini. Prospettive antropologiche contemporanee, ed. by Vincenzo Matera 
(Turin: Utet, 2008), pp. 49-71. 

35 See Jack Goody, Capitalism and Modernity: The Great Debate (Cambridge: Polity Press, 
2004); quote from the Italian edition, Capitalismo e modernita. II grande dibattito (Milan: 
Cortina, 2005), p. 14. 

168 Feeding the City 

These traces are not accepted by each individual in the same way, so 
there are continual variations on the theme. Therefore, it is typical of 
cultural dynamics to possess a certain level of diversity, because all cultural 
processes are potentially able to contain expressions of others. 

If we look at different communities, social groups or some nation-states 
until just recently, it is possible to observe how people gathered around 
the expression of several cultural traits (religion, language, value systems). 
Whilst individuals share these traits, they are not totally identifiable 
with them: there is always a margin where members of a culture do not 
overlap because there are people of different ages, social classes and family 
backgrounds. Cultures do not have defined boundaries: they are the 
result of crossovers, diasporas and contacts, and did not develop within 
continuous historical processes. 

It is sharing that allows the transmission of culture by ensuring that it 
"holds fast" as a system of signification, because in order to learn we must 
first be able to understand the teaching imparted. For this, a common 
code is necessary that makes the message we are sent semantically dense. 
This is not an arbitrary meaning but it is relevant to the context in which 
it is produced: it is a public, shared meaning. 36 I do not underestimate 
the theories of Hannerz when he questions the principle of sharing, that 
is to say, when he declares that in anthropology thinking of culture 
as something shared implies thinking of a homogeneous cultural 
distribution in society, 37 but I do think that sharing is attributable to an 
ample and sector-specific dimension, for example in certain classes or 
social groups. 

On these grounds, I developed a methodological interpretation of 
the concept of culture that was useful during my fieldwork and data 
processing. A cultural sense is achieved when three closely interwoven 
dimensions come into play: language, memory and social relations. 
These dimensions were the fil rouge of my ethnographic method 
and link the testimonies I collected, bearing in mind that a possible 
over-schematisation of this viewpoint is only a hypothesis of illustration 
and as such certainly does not claim to be an exhaustive cultural analysis. 
These three aspects do not exist separately from one another: the 
development of linguistic codifications of collective memory and social 

36 See Geertz (1973). 

37 Hannerz (1996). 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 169 

relations is a concurrent process, a form of training that occurs in unison. 
These three dimensions do, however, allow a basic level of analysis of 
human motivation, without prejudice to the investigation of other key 
social and cultural context variables like politics, economics and personal 
interests — although these variables are understood as events external to 
more profound dimensions, allowing us to understand the logic of their 
development. 38 

To document this interrelationship, it is necessary to record and 
transcribe the content of spoken testimonies (interviews, spontaneous 
tales, whispers and gestures) so as to enable their description and analysis. 
I attach great importance to language as a shared heritage in which, as 
Edward Sapir explains: "the mere fact of a common speech serves as a 
peculiarly potent symbol of the social solidarity of those who speak the 
language". 39 I also take into account the spatial and material context 
in which the dabbawala association works on a daily basis. The work of 
Mary Louise Pratt, which has been influential to my thinking, compares 
a language of community to a language of contact. She studies the 
functioning of language that crosses boundaries and pays attention to 
'zones of interaction" in which there are differences and inequalities. 40 The 
meaning given to language in my research, however, was broader than 
verbal communication, extending its semantic field to the body, facial 
expressions, proxemics and the ways of moving and dressing; all of which 
are, I believe, an integral part of the act of communication. 

Formulating a description is not a neutral process. It is what Ward 
Goodenough defines as what we are able to build cognitively by observing 
phenomena. 41 This means that anthropologists describe on the basis of their 
own experience and, although they try to maintain an objective attitude to 
their research, they can only approximate the subject of their study. The 
description of cultural content can fall back on emic accounts to try to 

38 Wagner (1981). 

39 Edward Sapir, Culture, Language and Personality: Selected Essays (Berkeley: University of 
California Press, 1949). 

40 Mary Louise Pratt, "Linguistic Utopias", in Tire Linguistics of Writi?ig: Arguments 
Between Language and Literature, ed. by Nigel Fabb, Derek Attridge, Alan Durant and 
Colin MacCabe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), pp. 48-66. The 
bibliographical reference is in Ulf Hannerz, Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social 
Organization of Meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992). 

41 Ward Goodenough, "Toward A Working Theory of Culture", in Assessing Cultural 
Anthropology, ed. by Robert Borofsky (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994). 

170 Feeding the City 

get closer to the way in which group members talk about their culture. 42 
Goodenough's reflections are worth noting: 

An emic account lies more on the analysis of the patterns in people's opinions 
of people about what is or is not acceptable in specific situations and contexts 
than it does on their explanations or generalisations. An emic account, then, 
is a model of what one needs know to speak a language like a native speaker 
or to behave acceptably by the standards for socialised persons within a 
society. It is not merely an account of what they say about it. 43 

Thus the process is not a simple transcription and description of speech, but 
the reference to a diachronic dimension of the cultural experience that takes 
into account autobiographical and collective memory as a fundamental 
aspect of culture. Research into this aspect allows us to understand the 
social processes that permeate the cultural dimension, not in a linear fashion, 
but through overlaps, ruptures and reconstructions. It also allows us to 
work on the "threshold effect", mentioned by Norbert Elias, which can be 
profitably related to emotional, cognitive, behavioural and psychological 
processes. 44 It allows us to perceive in the subject's biography the passage 
through various experiences related to the "traces" mentioned by Goody, 
namely the transformations of the past recognisable in the present, and 
the innovations that each subject introduces, assimilates and transmits in 
the evolution of their generation. This is why individual and collective 
memories are co-present in the life of the subject who may not be fully 
aware of their predecessors' traces, but nonetheless experience and change 
them constantly. As Maurice Halbwachs puts it: "Our memories live in us 
as collective memories and we are reminded of them by others, even if 
we were the only ones involved in the events and only we saw the objects. 
The fact is that we are never really alone. There is no need for others to be 

42 The emic-ethic conceptual pair was introduced by Kenneth L. Pike in the 1950s. Pike's 
terminology is based on a linguistic analogy and, in fact, "ethical" does not refer to ethics, 
the philosophy of judgment of human actions. In linguistics, language sounds can be 
described in two complementary perspectives: phonetic (hence "ethic"), which allows 
for an external description based on anatomical and physical parameters; the phonology 
perspective, whose basic unit is the phoneme (hence phonemic, hence "emic"), which 
is the minimum unit of a language sound distinguished by speakers of a particular 
language. This distinction made it possible to speak of significant and non-significant 
behaviour with regard to individuals who act. It is a distinction that has been greatly 
criticized, above all because it tends to identify a culture by its language and not the 
language as part of culture. See Alessandro Duranti, Antropologia del linguaggio (Rome: 
Meltemi, 2000). 

43 Goodenough (1994), pp. 262-73. 

44 Norbert Elias, Uber den Prozess der Zivilisation. I. Wandlungen des Verhaltens in den weltlichen 
Oberschichten des Abendlandes (Basel: Verlag Haus zum Falken, 1939). 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 171 

present, to be materially distinguishable from us because we all carry with 
us and within us a number of separate persons". 45 

The researcher may trace a multitude of people who have contributed 
to an interviewee's way of thinking, because collective memory exists in 
individual memory and collective representations are filtered through 
personal representation. 46 

The evolution of the concept leads us towards culture's relational 
dimension, confirming Geertz's analysis that culture arises and exists 
through human interaction. It is only through interaction that "people 
shape social structures and meanings in their contacts with one another 
[...]; and societies and cultures emerge and cohere as results of the 
accumulation and aggregation of these activities". 47 Goody goes on to say 
that culture is understood as the content of social relations. 48 Obvious as it 
may be, forms of cultural learning are developed from the small nucleus 
of the parenting circle and, in particular, the interaction with parents and 
siblings. Anthropologists have always studied family relations and their 
various forms worldwide. Beyond the differences, the relationship of deep 
affective involvement that exists between parents and children seems to be 
universal, even though management of emotions changes from context to 
context. This primary model of interaction will feature massively in the life 
of every generation, who will then perpetuate or change it, and in the latter 
case will perhaps succeed only in part. 

45 Maurice Halbwachs, Les cadres sociaux de la memoire (Paris: Presses Universitaires de 
France, 1952), it. trans., La memoria collettiva (Milan: Unicopli, 1987), p. 38. 

46 George E. Marcus, "After the Critique of Ethnography: Faith, Hope and Charity, but the 
Greatest of these is Charity", in Assessing Cultural Anthropology, ed. by Robert Borofsky 
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), pp. 40-53. 1 think it is worthwhile to note the inability 
to say everything in a testimony, that it can be comprehensive in giving a complete 
picture of the respondent's experience, and to take into account forms of oblivion, or 
what is forgotten, or what is unconsciously or consciously concealed by the subject in an 
interview. See Marc Auge, Les Formes de I'oubli (Paris: Payot et Rivages, 1998). 

47 Ulf Hannerz, Cultural Complexity. Studies in the Social Organization ofMeani?ig (New York: 
Columbia University Press, 1992) p. 15. 

48 It is worth pointing out that I do not see the terms "social" and "cultural" in opposition to 
one another. As Jack Goody says, Geertz distinguishes between social structure and culture, 
meaning the first to be the "ongoing process of interactive behaviour" and the second "the 
complex of beliefs in terms of which individuals define their world, express their feelings 
and make their judgments." Geertz quoted by Jack Goody, "Culture and its Boundaries: 
A European View", in Assess/jig Cultural Anthropology, ed. by Robert Borofsky (New York: 
McGraw-Hill, 1994), pp. 250-61. I agree with Goody when he says that it is difficult to 
distinguish between the two levels since they interact incessantly and, in fact, social action 
would be meaningless without cultural action. There is no dichotomous relationship 
between content and interaction, because there would be a shift from the order of reality to 
that of the ideal, or from the material to the immaterial, in a continuous binary distinction. 

172 Feeding the City 

It is within the family context, or within the institutions designed to 
stand in its place, that the fundamental forms of relational participation 
develop for each society. These forms are closely related to the expressive 
forms of verbal and non-verbal language, and to memory. Relational 
learning is gradual and the subject must be exposed repeatedly in order to 
incorporate knowledge models or patterns. These patterns are not rigid but 
provide flexible responses for the different situations in which the subjects 
find themselves. Each context reflects the hierarchical social order in which 
it exists— which is to say the production and reproduction of cultural 
forms related to power, class, social status, rank, gender and age inherent 
to historical ideologies. 49 In order to analyse the symbolic value of these 
relations, it is necessary to portray the full range of possible variations 
that these relations assume, and the power structures from which they 
spring. This methodological interpretation of culture makes the symbolic 
meanings of human action "visible". 30 

The ethnography of cultural diversities 

In my effort to propose an ethnography of diversities I had to take into 
account the aforementioned dynamics which can be summarised as a few 
essential methodological points: 51 

• refocusing the discussion on concepts of culture and identity as 
unitary concepts underpinning a social group. We must define 
them in the plural and see cultures and identities as multiples. 

49 See Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior (New York: Anchor 
Books, 1967). See also Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of 
Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974). 

50 Wagner (1981). 

51 I have drawn extensively from Enzo Colombo, "Etnografia dei mondi contemporanei. 
Limiti e potenzialita del metodo etnografico nell'analisi della complessita", Rassegna 
Italiana di sociologia, 42:2 (2001), 205-30 (pp. 212-13). Pier Paolo Giglioli describes 
ethnography as "a style of quality research based on prolonged, direct observation whose 
aim is to describe and explain the significance of the practices of social players". See Pier 
Paolo Giglioli, "Una nuova rivista", Etnografia e ricerca qualitativa, 1 (2008), 3-8 (p. 4). 
Ethnography is fieldwork that allows an extended encounter between the researcher and 
the subjects, the spaces and the objects related to the research, with a common language 
whose scope is to enhance a plurality of points of view using a narrative style that counts 
among its main tools the unstructured interview, collection of biographies, participative 
observation and the use of videos as support documentation. See Ugo Fabietti and 
Vincenzo Matera, Etnografia. Scritture e rappresentazioni dell'antropologia (Rome: Carocci, 
1997); A. Dal Lago and Rocco De Biasi (eds.), Un certo sguardo. Introduzione all'etnografia 
sociale (Rome: Laterza, 2002); and Antonio De Lauri and Luigi Achilli (eds.), Pratiche e 
politiche dell'etnografia (Rome: Meltemi, 2008). 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 173 

Ethnography must necessarily include the strategies of construction 
of this multiplicity, the associated language and historical processes 
that are the basis of its construction; 

• abandoning the idea that there are social groups and self-sufficient, 
culturally homogeneous places. The core of ethnographic work is 
increasingly realised in transit and frontier areas, in the study of 
cultural barrier mobility and of the cultures themselves; 

• modifying the concept of observation: ethnographers are not strangers 
to the context studied and their action transforms their cultural 
experience and that of the interviewees, thus defining ethnography 
as a transforming practice and one that draws into the debate an 
ethnographer' s totality of expression: senses, body, mind and soul; 52 

• modifying the concept of ethnographic description, since the 
ethnographer is unable to interpret and report completely the 
thoughts and actions of the interviewees. The ethnographer can 
only give one possible interpretation of the reality observed. This is 
why ethnography requires cumulative research and collaboration. 
Group work is much more in line with the complexity of cultural 
contexts and the ethnographic narrative is enriched by adverse set 
of viewpoints; and 

• presuming the need for various professions in the research work 
and constant interaction with its participants, the illustrative 
models require two reflective dimensions: one for the players 
who are the subject of the research and one for the researchers to 
observe themselves. In particular, for the latter, it is crucial to think 
about the inevitable conditioning that the researcher brings with 
them, and the methods for accessing research data. 

Alongside these provisions for methodology, the often dichotomous 
dynamics of expression inherent to globalisation processes must be taken 
into account, and may be summarised using Anthony McGrew's five 
binary oppositions: 53 

• universalisation versus particularisation: if, on one hand, globalisation 
universalises, in a manner of speaking, the central aspects and 

52 On ethnography as a transformative practice, see Leonardo Piasere, L'etnografo imperfetta, 
Esperienza e cognizione in antropologia (Rome: Laterza, 2002). 

53 The binary oppositions were suggested by Anthony McGrew, "A Global Society", in 
Modernity and its Futures, ed. by Stuart Hall, David Held and Anthony McGrew 
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), pp. 62-113. 

174 Feeding the City 

institutions of modern life, on the other it encourages ethnic and 
cultural particularisation through the exaltation of difference and 
local identities; 

• homogenisation versus differentiation: extending the process of 
globalisation across the globe tends towards cultural homogenisation, 
but inevitably involves the assimilation of global into local 
parameters and thus the incessant production of "differences" or 
new localisms; 

• integration versus fragmentation: globalisation creates new forms of 
organisation and transnational, regional or global communities 
on one hand, and on the other divides and fragments existing 
communities, both inside and outside nation-states; 

• centralisation versus decentralisation: globalisation tends to 
concentrate power, knowledge, wealth, authority and institutions, 
while at the same time encouraging resistance movements and 
therefore the decentralisation of resources; 

• juxtaposition versus syncretisation: by overlapping or bringing 
together different lifestyles, different cultures and social practices, 
globalisation may reinforce boundaries and cultural biases amongst 
groups, while also giving rise to hybrid, syncretic, or socially shared 
practices, ideas and values. 

Practices: research considerations, themes and the transcription 
and editing of interviews 

When I arrived in Mumbai I had to the face the daunting task of 
undertaking fieldwork in a large, unknown city. Fortunately, my first 
encounter with the president and the secretary of the dabbawala association, 
Raghunath Medge and Gangarama Talekar, had taken place earlier in 
Turin, at the 2006 Terra Madre [Slow Food] event organised every two years 
to promote an awareness of the world's various "food communities". 54 
During that meeting I expressed my desire to carry out research into their 
association in Mumbai. They agreed, and so when I arrived in India, I already 
had my first interviews in place. I began to observe the daily work of meal 

54 From the Terra Madre website: "Food communities are groups of persons who produce, 
process and distribute food of a good standard in a sustainable manner and are closely 
connected to the historical, social and cultural perspectives of a district. The communities 
share problems generated by intensive agriculture that damages natural resources and 
a mass food industry that aims to regiment tastes, placing at risk the very existence of 
small productions". See [accessed 30 July 2012]. 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 175 

distribution and subsequently perform field investigation with in-depth 
interviews not only with Medge and Talekar but also with other dabbawalas 
at different levels of the organisation. The informed consent given by the 
association was not of secondary importance, because interviewees do not 
talk spontaneously. My search was immediately subject to supervision by 
the interviewees themselves: they watched my work and my behaviour. 
I never believed in pretending to bond with the subjects I studied. The 
dabbawala association members are almost all men and in a society where 
gender differences are marked, I tried to study their work in accordance 
with their customs. 55 

The course of the research was never as straightforward as it appears in 
written form. I tried to give a conversational, narrative slant to my exchanges 
with the dabbawalas, while keeping to the framework of issues I wanted to 
explore. I suspect I often made mistakes in how I posed questions to my 
interviewees— perhaps being indiscreet or too direct— but I think some 
of my own errors served as a stimulus, leading them to offer me a better 
understanding of the association's dynamics, their daily work, their faith 
and their relationship with Mumbai. Often I began with the biography of the 
interviewees, a simple way to open a conversation, setting both them and 
me at ease. 56 

In this first phase of work in Mumbai I had the help of the interpreter 
Francesca Caccamo, who undertook both translation and mediation. 
Together we discussed at length how, where and when to ask questions, 
but in practice we were far less rigid; so any place, situation and time was 
useful for observing and interacting with the dabbawalas. We worked in 
Mumbai's noisy streets; the association's offices; on trains when the dabbas 
were being delivered; and at road junctions. In ethnographic research there 
are no fixed protocols that can be used in all situations; rather, on each 
occasion I had to perceive the best survey strategy to use. Living with this 
uncertainty during field research is particularly difficult for any scholar, 
although I think this is precisely one of the great merits of ethnography: 
keeping our interpretation mechanisms alert and tuning into the view 
that our subject suggests to us, together we understand institutions, places, 
different customs and their meanings. 

55 I must admit that situations arose which I found it particularly difficult to accept, for 
instance only eating after all the men had consumed their meal. 

56 The bibliography of the collection of biographies and life stories is vast. See Rita Bichi, 
L'intervista biografica. Una proposta metodologica (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2002); and Luisa 
Passerini, Storia e soggettivita. Lefonti orali, la memoria (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1988). 

176 Feeding the City 

During interviews and observation I first tried to develop an in-depth 
knowledge of the association's history, the founder' s role, and the profiles 
of the customers in chronological order, in order to reconstruct the social, 
economic and gastronomic changes in Mumbai. From the outset the theme 
of the varkari sampradaya— the dabbawala faith— was clearly the ethical and 
symbolic backdrop to their work, and closely tied to their villages of origin. 
I began to understand the architecture of the association, its organisation 
chart and meal delivery system, and the roles and the logic of the underlying 
management. It became clear that food assumes a pivotal role in a diverse 
metropolis like Mumbai. The dabbawala delivery service has opened a tiny 
gap through which we achieve a better understanding of the many facets 
that food assumes in a context of major urban and cultural transformation. 

Concomitantly with the field research, we undertook the long, patient work 
of transcription, translation and reworking of the interviews. Hindi interviews 
were transcribed by Usman Sheikh, a young actor who also helped in the 
translation of documents from Hindi. We tried to preserve the grammatical 
structures of Hindi so in the transcripts there will often be repetitions of 
phrases that may seem ungrammatical in another language. I performed the 
second stage of the work in Milan. I extrapolated the main themes that emerged 
from the interviews, eliminating the questions I asked the interviewees. From 
a dialogical, polyphonic approach we switched to individual narrative that 
took the form of short stories. In actual fact, the interviewer never disappears 
from the text because the triggers primed during the interview are the result of 
constant interaction and in this sense the questions merely start the reflection 
that serves to bring thoughts and memories to the surface. 

In editing the texts I have tried to ensure that anecdotes, allegories and 
images remain true to the oral version. The same applies to autobiographical 
narrative because, if it is true, as Dennis Tedlock says, that telling a story 
is a matter of invention and imagination, it is equally true that it has to do 
with the effects of reality and "in seeking to create an appearance of reality 
a narrator has recourse to a number of devices [...]: gesture [...], quotation, 
onomatopoeia". 57 1 also tried to achieve greater intelligibility for the reader, 
who may find it difficult to get their bearings in a transcript that sticks too 
closely to the spoken word, although I do warn— again quoting Tedlock— 
of the "opacity in the relationship between speech and writing". 58 

57 Dennis Tedlock, The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation (Philadelphia: University 
of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), p. 166 

58 Tedlock (1983). These considerations come from research conducted in 2004 on the 
world of the Milan Stock Exchange. The research was coordinated by Roberta Garruccio 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 177 

Alessandra Consolaro, a professor of Hindi language and literature 
at Turin University helped me to draw special attention to the "narrative 
character of cultural representations, to the stories built into the 
representational itself" while maintaining the freshness of the oral method 
and the rigour of grammatical understanding. 59 1 tried not to fall into the 
trap of literal transcription and the myth of "structural nostalgia", which 
identifies a time before time, when narratives could not be corrupted by 
the manipulations of those who had participated in their actual collection. 60 
This arrangement allows us to emphasise the creation and changing 
aspects of human activities, thus recognising that the understanding of 
cultural phenomena is necessarily an ongoing process. 61 The work of 
transcription and translation, and the use of ethnographic materials were 
intended to give an account of this constant transformation. 

For the English version, the translator Angela Arnone has taken account 
of this methodological framework: she sought to reproduce a lively and 
spontaneous conversational style. 62 Translation of informal speech is 
as challenging as that of formal language and in this book there was a 
clear demarcation between the conveying of the research results and the 
transposition of the dabbawala interviews into credible English, via the 
Italian translation. The aim was to respect the informant, their culture, 
and their beliefs without seeming condescending or producing an English 
text that jarred on the reader. This was achieved by first translating all 
the background material— so the translator was informed of both the 
dabbazvalas' history and their current situation— then the formulation 
of a draft translation of the interviews. These translated texts were then 
reviewed some days later, so they could be read with a fresh eye, and 

and was included in the volume, Roberta Garruccio (ed.), he grida. Memoria, epica, 
narrazione del parterre di Milano (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2005). Also from the 
research conducted with Germano Maifreda on employees tasked with training in large 
companies and Italian trade unions, see Germano Maifreda and Sara Roncaglia (eds.), 
Narrare laformazione. Grande impress e sindacato (Milan: Guerini, 2005). 

59 James Clifford, "On Ethnographic Allegory ", in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics 
of Ethnography, ed. by James Clifford and George E. Marcus (Berkeley: University of 
California Press, 1986), pp. 98-121 (p. 100). 

60 In this way we can avoid museumising knowledge taken to be a static nature of 
experience. See Andreas Huyssen, "En busca del tiempo futuro", Puentes, 1:2 (2000), 
12-29. Michael Herzfeld's Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State (New York: 
Routledge, 1997) uses the term "structural nostalgia" to analyse structural nostalgia as a 
collective representation of an uncorrupted heavenly order. 

61 Tedlock (1983). 

62 The translator's approach was based on many years of experience in rendering spoken 
language, including as an interpreter, and on the most underestimated yet most 
important of translation tools: intuition. 

278 Feeding the City 

spoken aloud to a native English speaker to confirm that they sounded 

Visual ethnography 

During my fieldwork I used a small digital video camera to record the 
interviews, the meal delivery process, and the daily routine of the dabbawalas. 
At first I was concerned about the reaction of the interviewees: I was 
afraid I might disturb them with this invasive method of observation and 
interaction. This fear proved unfounded because of Mumbai's traditional 
relationship with visual culture. The city is the home of Bollywood and 
hosts the production of most Indian films, and its citizens have a relaxed 
attitude towards the camera. For example, I was once filming an interview 
in a lift with a female dabbawala who was taking a meal to a customer's office. 
I was doing my best not to film another person present in the lift without 
his consent, when a quite disappointed— and perhaps even offended — 
gentleman turned to me and asked: "Aren't you going to film me?" 

In this way my research methodology was enhanced with visual 
ethnography as a tool for fieldwork collection and analysis. 63 Recent 
developments of this practice show two main technical and epistemological 
approaches. The first is the positive approach whereby the production 
of a film whose only aim is purely objective documentation, in its own 
perspective of so-called "salvage ethnography". 64 The shot material must 
be reprocessed and used as evidence in support of verbal reasoning. 65 The 
second is the interpretative approach, whereby the construction of the film 

63 I use the term "visual ethnography" in relation to Francesco Faeta's definition when he 
writes "I believe that the study of audio-visual media and their use in anthropological 
research and recovery, or the study of optical recordings of certain cultural or social 
facts, should be defined properly as 'visual ethnography', while 'visual anthropology' 
should be considered the study of cultural productions that materialize images, viewing 
mechanisms and representation of a given human group, in relation to its broader social 
coordinates". See Francesco Faeta, Strategie dell'occhio, Saggi di etnografia visiva (Milan: 
Franco Angeli, 2003), pp. 10-11. 

64 For "salvage ethnography" see Margaret Mead, "Visual Anthropology in a Discipline 
of Words", in Principles of Visual Anthropology , ed. by Paul Hockings (Berlin: Mouton 
de Gruyter, 1995), pp. 3-10. To investigate the history of this discipline, see Cecilia 
Pennacini, Filmare le culture. Un'introduzione all'antropologia visiva (Rome: Carocci, 2005); 
and Francesco Marano, Camera etnografica. Storie e teorie di antropologia visuale (Milan: 
Franco Angeli, 2007). 

65 Paul Henley, "Film-making and Ethnographic Research", in Image-based Research: A 
Sourcebook for Qualitative Researchers, ed. by Jon Prosser (London: Routledge falmer, 
2003), pp. 42-59. 

Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 179 

is achieved by visual ethnographers following a storyline that emerges 
from the action. This perspective allows them to transmit the meaning 
of events being filmed from the perspective of the protagonists. 66 The 
two different approaches have taken the actual paths of anthropological 
epistemology divided between an aspiration towards the construction 
of a natural science that would turn their detached eye to the subject 
studied, and hermeneutic-interpretative approaches where there is the 
involvement of the scholar as well as an awareness of the cultural and 
social transformations triggered by the encounter between the researcher 
and the subject. 

Over the last twenty-five years, the separation of those interested in the 
documentation and those interested in the documentary has not prevented 
ethnographic film from innovating both technically and stylistically. 67 These 
are innovations that I decided to bear in mind for my research, keeping 
shooting in a raw state and without stifling the technical devices that 
allowed me to produce the films. So the shots show all the persons who took 
part in the filming, the mediator, and my questions and considerations as I 
filmed. Nevertheless, my approach did not risk being ingenuous, thinking 
I would be able to use the images "simply" in a realistic key. 68 

In using video support I was able to obtain a dual benefit: on the one 
hand it provided me with a semantically richer, fuller documentation and 
storage of collected material, allowing me to be able to use the raw shot 
as the mirror for the written ethnographic record, in order to hear the 
complete oral account given by each interviewee and be able to compare 
it with the transformed interview texts included in the book. Moreover, 
the filmed ethnographic material is especially effective in representing 
the performative and symbolic aspects of a culture, showing contexts, 
gestures, and "know-how" for these members of society. Thus, I hope that 
the dabbawala delivery process, the signs on dabbas, the crowded trains, 
the noisy streets, the house-to-house pick up and affective, emotional 
and psychological aspects connected to their (and my) work are more 

66 Ibid. 

67 I recommend monitoring these aspects on 

68 On my part there was the awareness that each image was the result of a cultural 
construction that had to take into account, as Faeta writes: "links that connect visual 
national cultures, with their plots, [and] their social and political conditions" (2003), p. 8. 


Sanskrit terms in bold are given according to the IAST (International 
Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration) transcription standard. The main 
reference used for this glossary is the Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary, 
edited by R. S. McGregor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 









Agni: the two-headed god of fire and the recipient 
of daily sacrifice as messenger of the gods. One of 
his heads signifies immortality, while the other is 
considered a symbol of life renewal. 

ahimsa: "the avoidance of violence", a fundamental 
ethical virtue of Jainism, also respected in Buddhism 
and Hinduism. 

Alandi: a city and a municipal council in Pune district in 
the state of Maharashtra. Alandi is a place of pilgrimage 
and is venerated by many Hindus. A temple complex 
has been built near the spot of Sant Dnyaneshwar's 
samadhi. It is visited by thousands of pilgrims, in 
particular those of the Varkari sect. 

anna-data: provider of food. 

anna-maya-kosa: the "food-apparent-sheath", i.e. 
the physical body as a receptacle of nutrients in the 
Vedantic philosophy; the outer, less refined of the five 
illusory "sheaths" enveloping one's true self. 

Annapurna Manila Mandal: an organisation working 
for the inn-runners since 1975 in Mumbai. 

182 Feeding the City 


Atharva Veda 




Bhagavad Gita 




Janata Party 


artha: purpose, motive, wealth, economy or gain. The 
term usually refers to the idea of material prosperity. 

Atharva-veda: a sacred text of Hinduism and one of the 
four Vedas, often called the "fourth Veda". 

avatar: the incarnation of a Hindu deity in human or 
animal form. 

Ayodhya: an ancient city of India adjacent to Faizabad 
city in Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh. Ayodhya is a 
popular Hindu pilgrim centre, closely associated with 
Lord Ram, the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu. 
According to the Ramayana, the city was founded by 
Manu, the law-giver of the Hindus. 

Babri: a mosque in Ayodhya on Ramkot Hill ("Rama's 
fort"). It was destroyed by Hindu pilgrims in 1992 in an 
outburst of anti-Islamic violence. 

balti: bucket. 

Bhagavad-gita: a 700-verse Dharmic scripture that is 
part of the ancient Sanskrit epic, one of the major works 
in the Indian literary tradition. 

Bhagavan: a term used to indicate the Supreme Being or 
Ultimate Truth in some traditions of Hinduism. 

bhai: brother. 

bhaiya: an endearing term for brother (i.e. "little 
brother"), also used for friends and acquaintances. 

Bhakti: historical South Asian devotional movement, 
particularly active within Hinduism, that emphasises 
the love of a devotee for his or her personal god. 

Bharatiya Janata Parti: a political party in India 
established in 1980. 

Bhimasankar Temple: located near Pune, at the source 
of the river Bhima. 

Glossary 183 

Bhora Bohra: a modern Muslim Shiite sect of western India 

retaining some Hindu elements. 

Bhumiputm bhumi-putra: "son of the soil", a term used by ethnic- 
Indians outside India, often with nativist and religious 

Bombay Bambai: the capital city of the Indian state of 

Maharashtra, now known as Mumbai. 

Brahma Brahma: in the Trimurti (the Hindu trinity), Brahma is 

the Immense Being, the orbiting force that creates space 
and time. Brahma is the point of equilibrium between 
Vishnu, his primarily creative, preserving force, and 
Shiva, the primarily destructive force. He represents the 
possibility of existence that arises when the opposing 
tendencies are coordinated. 

Brahman brahman: a Hindu of the highest caste traditionally 

assigned to religious priesthood. 

Chakra cakra: "wheels", a term denoting any of several key 

points of physical or spiritual energy in the human body 
according to yoga philosophy. 

Chawl cal: a large tenement house, found primarily in the 

factory cities of India. 

Coolie kuli: an unskilled labourer or porter usually in or from 

the Far East hired for low or subsistence wages. 

Dabba dabba: "box"; in Mumbai it is the word used for 

the multi-layered metal container used to transport 
prepared food by the dabbawalas. 

Dabbawala dabbavala: also spelled as dabbawalla or dabbawallah, the 
word literally means "box (-carrying) person", i.e. the 
"tiffin-box bearers" of Mumbai. 

Dada dada: means elder brother in Bengali and means 

grandfather in Hindi. 

Dalit dalit: a group of people traditionally regarded as 

"untouchable". Dalits are a mixed population, consisting 
of numerous castes from all over South Asia. 

dhaba: popular restaurants that generally serve local 
cuisine, and also act as truck stops. 

dharmsala: an Indian religious guesthouse. 

dharma: "law", a concept of central importance in 
Indian philosophy and religion; the proper, pure way 
to be and act. It also indicates religious orthodoxy and 
orthopraxis in Hinduism. 

dholak: a South Asian two-headed hand-drum. 

Divali: popularly known as the "festival of lights"; a 
five-day festival that celebrates the attainment of nirvana 
by the sage Mahavira in 527 BCE. In the Gregorian 
calendar, Diwali is celebrated between mid-October and 

dosa o dosa: a fermented crepe or pancake made from 
rice batter and black lentils. 

dvija: "twice-born", members of the first three higher 
varnas: Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. 

Ekanath (1533-1599): a prominent Marathi saint, scholar 
and religious poet. 

ghi: a kind of clarified semi-fluid butter, used especially 
in Indian cooking. 

Gujarat: a state in the Indian Union, located in north- 
western India. 

guna: "string" or "a single thread or strand of a cord 
or twine"; by extension, it may mean "a subdivision, 
species, kind, quality", or an operational principle or 

guru: a personal religious teacher and spiritual guide in 
Hinduism, but also a teacher and especially intellectual 
guide more generally. 

hindu: an adherent of Hinduism. 

Glossary 185 

hindutva: "Hinduness", a word coined by Vinayak 
Damodar Savarkar in his 1923 pamphlet Hindutva: Who 
is a Hindu?, used today to indicate the many facets of a 
political movement advocating Hindu nationalism and 
Hindu religious hegemony in India. 

Holi: a religious Spring festival celebrated in Hinduism 
as the "feast of colours". 

Haidarabad: the capital of the Indian state of Andhra 

izzat: the concept of honour prevalent in the culture of 
North India and Pakistan. 

jati: the caste system (literally "birth"). The term 
appears in almost all Indian languages and is related to 
the idea of lineage or kinship group. 

Jejuri: a city in Pune district. 

Jnanadeva (1275-1296): a thirteenth-century 
Maharashtrian Hindu saint, poet and philosopher. 

Jnanesvari: a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita 
completed in 1290. 

jyotirling: "Lingam (pillar) of light"; a sacred symbol 
that represents the permanent abode of Lord Shiva. 

kacca: uncooked. 

kaka: uncle. 

karma: a concept which explains causality through a 
system of rebirth, where beneficial effects are derived 
from past beneficial actions and harmful effects from 
past harmful actions. 

khanavala: small restaurants. 

286 Feeding the City 

khoja: a collective denomination for a group of diverse 
peoples — originally practitioners of Hinduism— 
originating from the Indian subcontinent. The word 
Khoja derives from Khwaja, a Persian/Turkic honorific 

kirtan: a kind of call-and-response chanting or 
'responsory" performed in India's devotional traditions. 

Kolhapur: a village in Radhanpur Taluk, Patan district, 

koli: historically, an Indo-Aryan ethnic group native 
to Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, 
Uttar Pradesh and Haryana states. 

konkani: an Indo-Aryan language in Western India. 

Krsna: literally "black, dark blue", the name of a 
Hindu deity, an avatar of Vishnu. Krishna is often 
described and portrayed as an infant or young boy 
playing a flute, or as a youthful prince giving direction 
and guidance. 

Kshatriya ksatriya: "warrior", one of the four traditional varna, or 

social orders in ancient India. Kshatriya constituted the 
military elite of the social system outlined by Hindu 

Kunbi kumbi: a prominent community of Karnataka. They 

can also be found in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, 
Pondicherry, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa and Maharashtra. 
Traditionally they belong to the fourth of the Hindu 
varnas, the so-called Sudra Kunbis. 

Mahabharata Mahabharata: a major Sanskrit epic of ancient India, 
it contains an important conversation between the 
Pandava prince Arjuna and his guide Krishna on 
a variety of philosophical, spiritual and devotional 






Maharashtra Maharastra: a state in Western India. 

Glossary 187 

Mami mami: "mother's brother", maternal uncle. 

Manas manas: "mind", in the Hindu tradition it is the source 

of apparent reality (maya), the creator of everything we 
perceive as real. 

Manomaya mano-maya-kosa: "mind-stuff-apparent-sheath", one of 
Kosha the outer "sheaths" or illusory ("apparent") layers that 

enclose one's true self (or "soul" /atman) according to 

Vedantic philosophy. 

Manu-Smrti Manu-smrti: "Laws of Manu"; the most authoritative of 
the books of the Hindu code (Dharma-shastra) in India. 
Manu-smrti is the popular name of the work, which is 
officially known as Manava-dharma-shastra. It is attributed 
to the legendary first man and lawgiver, Manu. In its 
present form, it dates from the first century BCE. 

Maratha maratha: an Indian warrior caste, found predominantly 

in the state of Maharashtra. The term Maratha has two 
related usages: within the Marathi-speaking region it 
describes the dominant Maratha caste; historically, it 
describes the Maratha Empire founded by Shivaji in the 
seventeenth century. 

Masala masala: a mixture of spices, popular in Indian cuisine. 

Mleccha mlecch: "foreigner", "non-Vedic barbarian"; a 

derogatory term used by native Indians in ancient India 
for any people of non-Indian extraction. 

Moksha moksa: "liberation", the final extrication of the soul 

from samsara and the bringing to an end of all the 
suffering involved in being subject to the cycle of 
repeated death and rebirth (reincarnation). 

Mughal Mugal: an Islamic empire set up in the Indian 

subcontinent by descendants of the Mongol conquerors 
of Asia from about 1526 to 1757. 

Mukadam muqaddam: "leader, chief, head", i.e. someone that is 
held in high regard and leads a group. 

288 Feeding the City 





Pav Bhaji 






Mumbai: capital of the State of Maharashtra; see Bombay. 

nadi: "channel", "stream", or "flow"; in yoga 
philosophy it refers to the channels of energy linking up 
the various chakra in the human body. 

Namadeva (1270-1350): a poet and saint from the 
Varkari sect of Hinduism. 

Narayana: another name for Vishnu; see Satyanarayan. 

pakka: "cooked", also spelled pukkah, sometimes used 
to indicate genuineness or the "original, proper" way to 
do things. 

Pandharpur: an important pilgrimage city on the banks 
of Bhima river in Solapur district, Maharashtra. 

Pars!: a member of a group of followers in India of the 
Iranian prophet Zoroaster. The Parsees, also spelled 
Parsis, whose name means "Persians", are descended 
from Persian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India to 
avoid religious persecution by the Muslims. 

pav bhaji: a fast food dish that originated in Marathi 

prana: "exhalation of breath", i.e. life-force, vital energy. 

prana-maya-kosa: "air-apparent-sheath", one of the 
outer "sheaths" or illusory ("apparent") layers that 
enclose one's true self according to Vedantic philosophy. 

prasad: material substance that is first offered to a deity 
in Hinduism and then consumed. 

puja: a religious ritual performed by Hindus as an 
offering to deities. 

Pune: a city in Maharashtra state; Pune city is the capital 
of Pune district. 

Purusha-Sukta Purusa-sukta: a hymn of the Rigveda, dedicated to the 
Purusha, the "Cosmic Being". 

Glossary 189 

Rajasik rajas: a class of foods that are bitter, sour, salty, pungent, 

hot, or dry, and are thought to promote sensuality, greed, 
jealousy, anger, delusion, and irreligious feelings in 
Ayurvedic philosophy. 

Rajgurunagar Rajgurunagar: a town in Pune district. 

Rama Rama: Rama or Shri Ram (Lord Ram) is the seventh 

avatar of the god Vishnu. 


Sangh (RSS) 






Ramlila: literally "Rama's play"; a dramatic folk 
re-enactment of the life of Lord Ram. 

Rastriya Svayarhsevak Sangh: the National Self-Service 
Organisation, a group founded in 1925 in opposition to 
Mohandas Gandhi and dedicated to the propagation of 
orthodox Hindu religious practices. 

Rg-veda: an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic 
Sanskrit hymns. It is counted among the four canonical 

samsara: the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death and 

samskara: a series of sacraments, sacrifices and rituals 
that serve as rites of passage and mark the various 
stages of human life. 

Samyukt Maharastra: "United Maharashtra 
Committee"; an organisation that spearheaded the 
demand in the 1950s for the creation of a separate 
Marathi-speaking state out of the (then-bilingual) state 
of Bombay in western India, with the city of Bombay 
as its capital. 

sattvik: a term denoting a class of foods that are 
fresh, juicy, light, nourishing, and tasty, and thus 
give necessary energy to the body and help achieve 
nutritional and energetic balance according to the 
Ayurvedic tradition. 

190 Feeding the City 

Satyanarayan satya Narayana: a term referring to Shri Vishnu (Lord 

Vishnu) understood in his infinite and all-pervading form. 

Shakti sakti: the personification of divine feminine creative 

power and also a term for the manifestation of the 
creative principle (of a god or goddess). It is the 
primordial cosmic energy, the interplay of dynamic 
forces that are thought to move through the entire 
universe in Hinduism. 

Shankara Adi Sankara (circa 788-820 CE): philosopher and 

theologian, most renowned exponent of the Advaita 
Vedanta school of philosophy, from whose doctrines 
the main currents of modern Indian thought are 
derived. He wrote commentaries on the Brahma- 
sutra, the principal Upanishads, and the Bhagavad 
Gita, affirming his belief in one eternal unchanging 
reality (brahman) and the illusion of plurality and 

Siv-sena: an Indian political organisation founded in 
1966 by political cartoonist Bal Thackeray. The party 
originally emerged out of a movement in Mumbai 
demanding preferential treatment for Maharashtrians 
over migrants to the city. 

Siv/Rudra: the Destroyer or the Transformer, a major 
and ancient Hindu deity. In the Trimurti, the Hindu 
trinity, he is darkness, the centrifugal force, dispersing 
and destroying all that exists. Shiva is the second of 
two interrelated and complementary tendencies. Each 
degree of manifestation of one is reversed with regard 
to the degree of manifestation of the other. If Vishnu is 
the centripetal force, Shiva represents the centrifugal: 
everything that has a beginning must end and Shiva 
presides over this passage through destruction and 
disintegration, the return to quiescence and sleep that 
occurs before any awakening or renewal is possible. As 
such, Shiva is regarded as a positive force, indispensable 
to sustain reality and its perpetual change. 

Shiv Sena 


Glossary 191 

sudra: the fourth and lowest of the traditional varna, 
or social classes, of India, traditionally artisans and 

Solapur: a city in Maharashtra state on the Sina River. 

svastik: an equilateral cross with arms bent at right 
angles, all in the same rotary direction, usually 
clockwise. The swastika as a symbol of prosperity and 
good fortune is widely distributed throughout the 
ancient and modern world. 

tamas: a class of foods that are dry, old, foul, or 
unpalatable, and are thought to promote pessimism, 
ignorance, laziness, criminal tendencies, and doubt in 
the Ayurvedic tradition. 

Tandur: an Indian method of cooking over a charcoal 
fire in a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven. 

tiphin: Anglo-Indian term for "a light meal". 

topi: a white coloured sidecap, pointed in front and back 
and having a wide band, popular among the dabbawalas. 

Trimurti: the triad of gods consisting of Brahma the 
Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer as 
the three highest manifestations of the one ultimate reality. 

Tukaram (1608-1645): a prominent Varkari sunt and 
spiritual poet during a Bhakti movement in India. 

urana: "upward moving air", i.e. the upward, 
transformative movement of the life-energy according 
to Vedantic philosophy. It governs growth of the body, 
the ability to stand, the powers of speech, the profusion 
of effort, enthusiasm and will. 

upajati: "sub-class", or sub-caste. 

Upanisad: a collection of philosophical texts which form 
the theoretical basis for the Hindu religion. They are 
also known as Vedanta. 

uttapam: a thick pancake, made by cooking ingredients 
in a batter. 

192 Feeding the City 

Vada pav 







Vishwa Hindu 





vara pav: a popular vegetarian fast food dish native to 
the Indian state of Maharashtra. 

vaisya: the third of four castes in Indian society, made 
up by merchants. 

Varkari sampradaya: a Vaishnava religious movement 
within the bhakti spiritual tradition of Hinduism, 
geographically associated with the Indian states of 
Maharashtra and northern Karnataka. Varkaris worship 
Vithoba (also known as Vitthal), the presiding deity of 
Pandharpur, regarded as a form of Krishna. 

varna: "colour" (also: "shade, kind, quality"), used to 
define the four traditional castes of India in terms of 
social standing and economic function. 

Veda: "knowledge", a corpus of religious and 
philosophic texts originating in ancient India. 
Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute 
the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest 
scriptures of Hinduism. 

vijnana-maya-kosa: "wisdom-apparent-sheath", one of 
the inner "sheaths" or illusory ("apparent") layers that 
enclose one's true self according to Vedantic philosophy. 

Visnu: Vishnu the Immanent is the centripetal force 
that creates light; Vishnu is the power of God through 
whom all things exist. Vishnu constantly re-invents 
the world and has become a symbol of continuity and 
eternal life. 

Visva Hindu Parisad: a Hindu organisation founded in 
India in 1964 to protect, promote and propagate Hindu 
values of life. 

Vithoba: a Hindu god, worshipped predominantly 
in the Indian states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, 
Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. He is a manifestation 
of the god Vishnu or his avatar Krishna. 

yoni: female reproductive organ. 

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Abbott, Dina 19 

acculturation xvi, 119, 121, 127, 162 

Achaya, K. T. 1, 16, 61 

Adarkar, Neera 19 

Adiga, Aravind 137 

Advani, Lai Krishna 141 

affirmative action 163-164 

Aime, Elena 10 

Aime, Marco ix, 148-149 

Akola 54 

Al Qaeda Jammu 142 
Al Qaeda Kashmir 142 
Alandi 43^14, 182 
Al-Biruni 72 

Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji 52-53 

Ambegaon 54, 110 

American Civil War 2-3, 4 

Andheri 28, 33, 91, 92, 94, 110, 113, 117, 118 

Anglo-Indian food 16 

Annapurna 20-21 

Annapurna, Mahlia Mandal x, 20-21 
Appadurai, Arjun 30, 134, 144 
Arango, Joaquin 56 
Armstrong, John 5 
Arnone, Angela x, 177 
Aryan peoples 61-62, 133, 187 
Audar 14 
Auge, Marc 166 
Aungier, Gerald 5 
Ayurveda 65-68, 78, 83-84 
three gunas: sattvic, rajasic, tamasic 66, 
83, 136, 190, 192 

Babur 141 

Bacche, Havji Madhu 12-15, 17, 43, 118 
Balakrishnan, Natarajan 98 
Barilla x 

Barnard, Alan 156 
Barth, Fredrik 130, 139 

Bastard, Sebastien x 

Baumann, Gerd 157 

Bene Israel 6-7 See also Jews 

Beteille, Andre 131 

Bhabha, Homi K. 119, 140 

Bhakti 37-39, 46, 59, 62, 183 See also 

Varkari Sampradaya 
Bhimashankar 14, 43, 183 
Bhora 5-6, 184 See also Muslims 
BJP: Bharatiya Janata Party 48, 135, 141, 183 
Boas, Franz 156, 164 
Bollywood 10, 27, 178 
Bombay / Bambaiya Hindi 10 
Bombay / Mumbai 
as a global city xvi, 24-25, 27, 30, 85, 
126-128, 144, 146, 151, 153-154, 
161 See also globalisation, cultural 
diversity in Bombay / Mumbai 
as a business and financial centre 3, 27 
Central station 117 
Churchgate station 22, 28, 33, 76, 105, 

115, 117-118 
exports to China 2-3, 4 
name-change xv, 25-26, 140 
post-independence reconfiguration 

textile industry in 2-3, 4, 15, 18-19, 22, 

23-24, 27-28 
urbs prima in Indis 3 
Victoria Railway Station/Chattrapati 
Shivaji Terminus 26, 94, 118 
Bombay Presidency 25 
Bonacich, Edna 8, 9 
Bonte, Pierre 127 
Borivali 33, 91 
Bourdieu, Pierre 167 
Brahmins 38, 39, 46, 49, 59, 63, 68-69, 
72, 74, 78, 185 

210 Feeding the City 

Brown, Patricia 16 
Buddha 62 

Buddhism 61, 103, 133, 135 

Caccamo, Francesca ix, 175 
Caille, Alain 148 
Caldwell, Melissa L. 146 
Camporesi, Piero 137 
Caracchi, Pinuccia ix, 43 
Carena, Augusto 89 

caste 12, 47-51, 73-74, 186 See also caste 
associations, dabbawala "caste", 
multi-caste conglomerates, varna 
and food / eating xv, xvi, 30, 44, 51, 

71-74, 76-77, 78-81 
and industrialisation 51-55 

caste associations 53, 55, 58-59 

Castiglioni, Ida 160 

Catherine of Braganza 2 

chain migration 56-57 

Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan 51, 53 

Chandrasekhar, Ramasastry 12 

Charles II, King of England 2 

Charles, Prince of Wales 88-89 

Chaudhuri, Kirti Narayan 3 

Christians 6-8, 44, 135 

Church of Goa 7-8 See also Christians 


Cologna, Daniele x 

Colombo, Enzo 124, 172 

Connerton, Paul 108 

Consolaro, Alessandra ix, 177 

cookbooks 30, 123 

coolies 11-12, 13, 184 

Coser, Rose Laub 154 

Crevecoeur, J. Hector St. John de 162 

Csordas, Thomas J. 167 

Cuche, Denys 166 

culinary fusion 17, 76 

cultural diversity See also food diversities, 
melting pot, multiculturalism 
conceptual analysis of 155-161, 163 
differentialist approach to 157 
ethnography of 172-179 See also visual 

in Bombay-Mumbai xvi, 4—11, 16-18, 
27, 31, 44, 61, 73-77, 79-81, 84-85, 
119, 126-129, 132-144, 151 
salad bowl metaphor for 163-164 
universalist approach to 157, 161, 163, 164 

cultural relativism 156 


methodological interpretation of 155, 

dabbas xv, 1, 2, 31, 105-106, 119-120, 184 
dabba identification system 101-107 

glossary of symbols 103-104 

system evolution 105, 106 
dabbawalas See also NMTBSCT 

competition among 87, 110-111 

co-operation between 109-110 

code of ethics 13-14, 32, 37, 38, 41, 44, 
47, 58, 60, 111, 149-150, 176 See also 
puja, Varkari Sampradaya 

illiteracy among xvi, 14, 32, 35, 41, 58, 
101, 107-109 

inter-generational ties 15, 32-35, 
43, 54, 112, 113-115 See also chain 

recruitment of 14, 92, 112 

shared origins of 14, 44-47, 53-59, 107, 

women as 35, 54, 178 
dabbawala "caste" 39, 53-54, 55-59 
dabbawala customers 

Bombay elite 16-17 

mill-workers 15, 18-24 

Mumbai middle classes 22, 24-31 
dabbawala-cusiomer relationship 14, 

31-35, 111-113 
Dadar 15, 21, 22, 35, 91, 94, 113, 117-118 
Dal Lago, Alessandro 157 
Dalits 39, 52-53, 59, 63, 184 
Danielou, Alain 38 
Das, N. K. 133 
David, Kenneth ix, x 
David, Rebecca ix 
De Ponti, Barbara 166 
De Saussure, Ferdinand 164 
decolonisation 161-162 
decosmopolitanism 134-135 
Demel, Walter 157 
dhabas 15, 75, 185 See also restaurants 
dharamshalas 13-14, 43-44, 185 
dharma xiii, 50, 64, 65, 70, 103, 185 
Doniger, Wendy 62 
Douglas, Mary 79, 80, 147 
Dreze, Jean 77 
Dumont, Louis 47-48, 50 
Dupront, Alphonse 127 
Duranti, Alessandro 81, 152 

Index 211 

Durkheim, David Emile 164 
Dwyer, Rachel 29 

Ehrenreich, Barbara 71 

Ekanath 38, 40, 43, 185 

Eliade, Mircea 66 

Elias, Norbert 136, 138, 170 

Emperor Aurangzeb 40, 45 

English East India Company 2 

enlightenment 156, 157-158, 164 

ethnic groups 8-9, 18, 61, 126, 129-132 
See also ethnicity 

ethnic tensions xvi, 25, 135, 141-143, 
153-154, 158-159 See also Hindu- 
Muslim conflict, racism 

ethnicity 25, 81, 129-132, 139-140, 157, 

ethnocentrism 129, 156, 159, 164 

Fabietti, Ugo 156 
Faeta, Francesco 178, 179 
Falzon, Mark-Anthony 17 
FEEM: Enrico Mattei Foundation ix 
Ferguson, James 160 
Ferrozzi, Claudio 97 
fieldwork 87, 174-177 See also visual 
interviews 174-176 
transcription ix, 176-177 
translation ix, x, 175, 176-177 
Fischer, Michael M.J. 81, 139 
Fischler, Claude 137 
flavour 66-67, 79, 80, 122-123 
Flood, Gavin 61, 64 
Foglio, Antonio 125 
food See also Anglo-Indian food, 
Ayurveda, caste and food, food 
diversities in Bombay / Mumbai, 
food rules, foodscape, home- 
cooked food, junk food, kaccha 
food, pakka food, purity and food, 
street food 
as a cosmic principle 60-64, 68 
as a gift 147-149 
holy practices related to 64-69 
hygiene xv, 16, 31, 136 
in Sanskrit literature 20-21 63-64, 65-68 
food diversities in Bombay / Mumbai xvi, 
13, 15, 17, 30-31, 44, 61, 73-77, 79-81, 
84-85, 119, 121-123, 124-129, 137-139, 
143-144, 145-146, 150-151, 176 

food rules 62, 65-74, 78-81, 138-139, 150 
foodscape xvii, 144-146, 151 See also 

Wilk, Richard 
Forbes 6 Sigma 98 
Foucault, Michel 132 
Frazer, James George 136 
Freed, Stanley A. 72-73 

Gandhi, Indira 20 

Gandhi, Mohandas 190 

Ganguly-Scrase, Ruchira 29 

Garruccio, Roberta x, 34, 89, 176 

gastrosemantics xvi, 60-85, 152-153 

Geertz, Clifford 159, 164, 171 

Ghatkopar 117 

Giglioli, Pier Paolo 172 

Girgaon 13, 15, 22, 28 

Girni 22-23 

Glazer, Nathan 129 

globalisation xvii, 30, 78, 85, 121-122, 

124-125, 126-128, 138, 144, 145, 146, 149, 

150-151, 153-154, 173-174 
Godbout, Jacques T. xiii, 148 
Godelier, Maurice 148 
Goodenough, Ward 169-170 
Goody, Jack 150, 167, 170, 171 
Grant Road 12, 15, 23, 91, 113, 117 
Grignaffini, Giorgio 128 
Gupta, Akhil 160 

Halbwachs, Maurice 170 

Hannerz, Ulf 156, 168 

Hansen, Thomas Blom 46 

Harris, Marvin 63 

Heritier, Francoise 163 

Herzfeld, Michael 33, 177 

Hindu-Muslim conflict 26, 27, 45, 72, 

133-134, 141-143 
Hindus 4-5, 25, 44, 45-46, 63, 135, 

185, See also caste, Marathas, BJP: 

Bharatiya Janata Party, VHP: 

Vishwa Hindu Parishad 
Hindustan Times 29 
Hindustani 10 

Hindutva ideology 26, 135, 153-154, 186 
Hobsbawm, Eric 26 
Hochschild, Arlie Russell 71 
Hofstede, Geert 89 
Hofstede, GertJ. 89 

home-cooked food xv, 14, 22, 30-31, 34, 
76-77, 78-79, 80, 83, 84, 97, 111-112, 
113, 127-128, 146 

212 Feeding the City 

Hugo, Graeme 56 
Husserl, Edmund 164 

Ibrahim, Dawood 141 
Inden, Ronald 48 

Indian National Council of Applied 

Economic Research 28-29 
industrial unrest 20, 22, 23-24, 28, 52, 


International Commission for the Future 

of Food and Agriculture 145-146 
Izard, Michel 127 

Jaffrelot, Christoph 29 

Jainism 61, 62, 103, 133 See also Mahavira 

Jakobson, Roman 81 

Janabai 38-39 

Jedhe, Keshavrao 40 

Jejori 43, 186 

Jews 6-8 

Jnanadeva 38-40, 43, 186 
junk food 74-75 

kaccha food 73, 186 
Kakar, Sudhir 54 
Kalyan 33, 115, 118 
Kandivali 28, 33, 54, 91 
Karaka, Dosabhai Framji 5 
karma 19, 50, 67, 114, 186 
Karve, Irawati 40 
Kaul, Shailindra ix 
khanawals 19-22 

Khare, Ravindra S. 60-61, 64, 152 
Khoja 5-6, 187 See also Muslims 
King, Niloufer Ichaporia 18 
Kingsley, Davis 51 
Kouaouci, Ali 56 
Krishnamachari, Bose 119 
Kroeber, Alfred L. 164 
Kshatriya 46, 49, 55, 58, 59, 185, 187 
Kulke, Eckehard 5 
Kunbis 46, 52, 57-58, 187 

Laws ofManu See Manu Smrti 
Le Breton, David 84, 120 
Le Guerer, Annick 120 
Levi, Sylvain 62 

Levi-Strauss, Claude 81-85, 159 
Levi-Strauss's culinary triangle 81-85 
Longo, Chiara x 
Lower Parel 23, 28 

Mahajan, Gurpreet 133 

Mahalaxmi / Mahalakshmi 15, 23 

Maharashtrian identity 25-26, 40, 45^7, 
48, 53, 55, 57-59, 132, 134-135, 140, 
144, 188, 190 See also Marathas, Shiv 
Sena, Shivaji Bhonsle 

Malad 28, 35, 91, 92 

Mahavira 17, 42, 62, 185 

Maifreda, Germano 89, 176-177 

Malcolm X 163 

Mamo, David 51 

manas 62, 188 

Manekshaw, Bhicoo J. 18 

Manu Smrti 49, 188 

Marano, Francesco 178 

Marathas 12, 23, 25-26, 40, 45-47, 48-49, 

53, 55, 57-59, 91, 132, 134-135, 140, 
188 See also Maharashtrian identity 

Marathi-speakers See Marathas 

Marchi, Armando x 

Marine Line 44, 105, 118 

Marriot, McKim 71 

Martini, Claudio 146 

Masselos, Jim 48, 142 

Massey, Douglas S. 56 

Mauss, Marcel 147, 148, 167 

MAUSS: Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste 

dans le Sciences Sociales 148 
Maval 54, 110 
Mayer, Hans 157-158 
McGregor, R. S. 182 
McGrew, Anthony 173-174 
Mead, Margaret 178 
Medge, Raghunath ix, 12, 13, 16, 17-18, 

22, 25-26, 31, 32-33, 37, 41, 43-45, 

54, 55, 58, 76-77, 87-90, 91, 93-94, 
96, 105, 108-115, 174 

Mehta, Deepa 19 

Mehta, Suketu viii 

melting pot 17, 161-163 

Memmi, Albert 158 

Menon, Meena, x, 19 

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice 167 

Michaels, Walter Benn 165 

middleman minorities 8-9, 16 

migration xvi, 2-8, 10-12, 14, 19, 27, 
47^8, 54-57, 59, 61, 75-77, 85, 
89-91, 113-114, 126-128, 143, 157, 

Minkowski, Eugene 119, 151 

Index 213 

Mintz, Sidney W. 122, 129 
Montanari, Massimo 126 
Morin, Edgar 120 
Morris, Morris D. 51-52 
Moynihan, Daniel P. 129 
Mughal empire 40, 45, 141 
Muktabai 38-39, 43 
multi-caste conglomerates 53 
multiculturalism 160-164, 166 See also 

cultural diversity 
Mumba (goddess) 25-26 
Munshi 54 

Muslims 5-6, 44, 45, 135, 184 See also 

Bhora, Khoja, Hindu-Muslim conflict 
Muzzarelli, Maria Guiseppina 18 

Namadeva 38^0, 189 
Nandy, Ashis 134 
Navarini, Gianmarco 124 
Navi Mumbai 21, 24 
Nehru, Jawaharlal 30 
Nencioni, Sara Talli 89 
NMTBSCT: Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box 
Suppliers Charity Trust xv-xvi, 
12-15, 24, 27, 34, 38-39, 41, 43, 47, 
53-57, 60, 87-118 See also dabbas, 
dabba identification system, 
area directors 91-92 
delivery process 98-101 
delivery schedule 100-101 
distribution logic 97-98 
executive committee 88-90 See also 

Medge, Raghunath 
foundation and development of 12-15, 

17-18, 87 See also Bacche, Havji Madhu 
mukadams 92-94, 112 
organisational structure of 87-88, 94—96 
"practical management" 107-108 
railway network as a mental map xvi, 

use of railways 99, 100-101, 106, 116-118 
Nussbaum, Martha C. 159 

Orientalism 47, 48 
Outcastes See Dalits 

pakka food 73-74, 189 
Pandharpur 39-43, 90, 189 
Parekh, C. S. 12 
Parker Bowles, Camilla 89 
Parsee kitchens 13, 15, 16-18 

Parsees 5, 8, 16-18, 189 See also Parsee 

Pathak, Gauri 58 
Pellegrino, Adela 56 
Pennacini, Cecilia 178 
Petrini, Carlo ix, 121 
Piano, Stefano 50-51 
Piasere, Leonardo 173 
Pike, Kenneth L. 169-170 
pilgrimage 39-43, 90 See also dharmshala 
Pirenne, Henri 137 
Poliakov, Leon 61 
Pratt, Mary Louise 169 
principle of incorporation 136-137 
puja 13, 41, 44, 60, 108, 118, 189 See also 

dabbawala code of ethics, Varkari 

Pune 12, 14, 40, 54, 55, 56-58, 90, 94, 95, 

114, 189 
Purav, Prema 20 

purity 49-50, 70, 129, 132, 135, 140, 144 
and food 30, 40, 62-70, 71-73, 74, 

79-81, 83-84, 136, 143-144 See also 

home-cooked food 
Purusha-sukta 49, 189 

racism 135, 157, 158 
Raigar 35 

Rajgurunagar 14,54, 55, 90, 94, 190 
Ramanujan, Attipat Krishnaswami 5, 

Ramdas 45 

Ranade, Mahdev Govind 46 
religious fundamentalism 25, 26, 135, 

138, 141-142, 153-154 
Remotti, Francesco 144 
Research Foundation for Technology, 

Science and Ecology 146 
restaurants 15, 17, 74-77, 78, 123-124, 143 
Rigveda 49, 189 
Rivera, Annamaria 158 
Romantic particularism 156 
Roncaglia, Sara 89, 176-177 
Ronchi, Veronica 89 
Rotilio, Giuseppe 123 
Roy, Arundhati 134 
RSS: Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh 190 
Rushdie, Salman 1, 132, 140 
Russell, Robert Vane 58 
Russell, Sharman Apt 137 

214 Feeding the City 

Sabban, Francoise 126 
Sabharwal, Gopa 131 
Salsano, Alfredo 149 
samsara 50, 188, 190 
Samyukta Maharashtra 40, 190 
Sandhu, Abjijeet ix 
Sangamner 54 
Sapelli, Giulio ix, 13, 89, 149 
Sapir, Edward 164, 169 
Sardesai, Govind Sakharam 46 
Sassen, Saskia 134 

Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar 135, 186 

Sayad, Abdelmalek 85 

Schein, Edgar H. 89 

Scrase, Timothy J. 29 

Semi, Giovanni 124 

Sen, Amartya 77 

Senge, Peter M. 89 

Seppilli, Tullio 33, 128 

shakti 21, 70 

Shanti Nagar 72 

Shapiro Anjaria, Jonathan 74 

Shapiro, Roy 97 

Sheikh, Usman ix, 176 

Shiv Sena 25, 26, 46, 134-135, 142, 143, 191 

Shiva 21, 38, 39, 63, 118, 184, 186, 191, 192 

Shiva, Vandana 77-78, 146 

Shivaji Bhonsle 26, 40, 44-47, 48^9, 53, 

55, 58, 188 
shudra 39, 49, 50, 59, 192 
Smith, Brian K. 62 
Smith, David 70 
Solinas, Giorgio ix, xi-xiv 
Sorcinelli, Paolo 137 
Stark, Oded 56 
Steel, Carolyn 138 
Strambio, Andrea 89 
street-food vendors 20, 74-75, 143 
strikes See industrial unrest 
Suez Canal 3 
Surne, Narayan 80 

Taguieff, Pierre- Andre 157 

Talekar, Gangaram ix, 24, 34, 54, 87, 91, 

Tarozzi, Fiorenza 18 
taste See also flavour 
a unified cosmology of xvii, 150-154 

as a cultural construct xvii, 76, 84, 119, 
123, 124-125, 128-129, 144-145, 146 

grammars of 152-153 
Taylor, Charles 166 
Taylor, J. Edward 56 
Tedlock, Dennis 176 
Teo, Chung-Piaw 98 
Terra Madre ix, 146, 174 
Thana 2, 33, 91, 115 
Thane 6, 24, 115, 118 
Thapar, Romila 61, 135 
tiffin See dabba 
Tomatis, Federica ix 
Torri, Michelguglielmo 16, 61, 92, 133 
Tukarama 38-40 

Untouchables See Dalits 

vaishya 49, 58, 185, 192 

Van Binsbergen, Wim M.J. 165, 166 

Van der Veer, Peter 29 

Van Gennep, Arnold 33 

Varkari Sampradaya 32, 37-44, 46, 47, 
58, 83, 91, 147, 176, 192 See also 
dabbawala code of ethics, puja 

Varkari sants 38^1, 45 

Varma, Pavan K. 29 

Varma, Rashmi 134-135 

varna 39, 49-50, 192 

"varna leap" 58 

vegetarianism 17, 44, 58, 62-63, 72, 74, 

76, 143 
Vereni, Piero 167 

VHP: Vishwa Hindu Parishad 141, 192 
Vile Parle 89, 90, 105, 117 
Virar 33, 76, 115, 117 
visual ethnography 178-179 

Wagner, Roy 166 
Walker Bynum, Caroline 18 
Watson, James L. 146 
Weber, Max 50, 164 
Wilk, Richard R. 122-123 
Wilson, Woodrow 130 
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 121 
women's role in food preparation 

16-18, 19, 68-71 See also Annapurna 

Mahila Mandal 

Zangwill, Israel 162 

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Knowledge is for sharing 

Sara Roncaglia 

Feeding the City 

Work and Food Culture of the Murnbai Dabbawalas 

Every day in Mum bai 6,000 dobbowofos (literal!/ translated as "those who 
carry boxes'*) distribute a staggering 200,000 home-cooked lunchboxes 
to the city's workers and students. Giving employment and status to 
thousand* at largely illiterate villagers from Mumbai's hinterland, this 
co-operative has been in operation since the late nineteenth century. It 
provides one of the most efficient delivery networks in the world: only one 
lunch in six million goes astray, 

Feeding the City is an ethnographic study of the fascinating inner workings 
of Mumbai's dabbawalas. Urban anthropologist Sara Roncaglia explains 
how they cater to the various dietary requirements of a diverse and 
increasingly global city, where the preparation and consumption of food 
is pervaded with religious and cultural significance Developing the idea 
of "gastrosemantics' 1 - a language with which to discuss the broader 
implications of cooking and eating - Roncaglia's study helps us to rethink 
our relationship to food at a local and global level. 

As with ail Open Book publications, this entire book is ovaftobte to read for 
free on the publisher's website, it is also available as a free pdf and ebook 
download, thanks to generous donations from supporters using 
Supplementary digitof material can also be downloaded from: 


Knowledge is for sharing 1 9 ■?* 1 

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